Alcohol Belt

vodka war

The alcohol belts of Europe are regions in Europe which are considered to be divided by association with either beer, wine, or hard liquor.

The alcohol belts refer to the traditional beverages of countries rather than what is most commonly drunk by the populace today, as in terms of drinking habits beer has become the most popular alcoholic drink in the whole world – including various parts of the wine and vodka belts.

The ‘vodka belt’ informally includes most of the Nordic states (Finland, Sweden, Norway and Iceland), the Baltic states (Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania), Russia, Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine. The southern boundary of the belt roughly corresponds to the −2 °C January isotherm (a line that connects points on a map that have the same temperature). With the exception of Ukraine and some regions of southern Russia, cultivation of grapes is impossible or very difficult in the vodka belt.

Sometimes the term is used while referring exclusively to the Slavic countries of Central and Eastern Europe, as they are the historical homeland of vodka (Poland and Russia being the nations most often associated with the invention of the drink). Before the 19th century, vodka was considered very much a ‘people’s drink’ that was common among the peasantry who made up the majority of the population in most countries of the time. The political and aristocratic minority preferred imported wines or other alcoholic beverages that were considered less plebeian. There are exceptions, such as Żubrówka, a type of Polish vodka that dates back to the 16th century, which became popular among the szlachta (nobility) as well as the peasantry as early as the 18th century.

In his book about the Soviet Union, Alex de Jonge elaborates on his concept of ‘geoalcoholics.’ In particular, he explains Russian peculiarities by their belonging to the vodka belt and the absence of the beer belt in the Soviet Union. Other than the prevalent hard liquor the vodka belt is also characterized by a higher occurrence of binge drinking compared to the rest of Europe. Likewise, in his ‘Russia and the Russians,’ historian Geoffrey Hoskins notes the distinct effect vodka culture has had on the countries of the former Russian Empire, creating drinking as a social problem on a different level from other European countries.

In many countries historically belonging to the vodka belt, vodka has been supplanted by beer as the alcoholic drink of choice since the early 21st century. Residents of Finland and Sweden consume twice as much beer as vodka (in terms of pure alcohol). The Polish Beer-Lovers’ Party (which won 16 seats in the Sejm in 1991) was founded on the notion of fighting alcoholism by a cultural abandonment of vodka for beer. And indeed in 1998, beer surpassed vodka as the most popular alcoholic drink in Poland. In Russia, annual consumption of beer has grown from 12 liters per capita in 1995 to 67 liters in 2006 (but still remains lower than consumption of vodka).

The term received much attention in 2006 in the context of the ‘vodka war’ within the European Union about the standardization of vodka: the vodka belt countries insist that only spirits produced from grains and potato must be allowed to be branded as ‘vodka,’ according to the long established traditions of its production, a brand protection similar to the ‘protected designation of origin.’ The ‘Schnellhardt compromise,’ proposed by Horst Schnellhardt, suggests that vodkas from other than cereals, potatoes and molasses, should be labeled to say ‘Vodka produced from…’

The beer belt is located to the southwest of the vodka belt and to the northeast of the wine belt. The geography of the beer belt is closely tied to the historical growing range of its two main ingredients: barley, and more especially hops. Barley was first domesticated during the late stone age in the ancient near east, has been brewed into beer-like beverages for thousands of years, and has been grown in most of Europe since ancient times. Hops are more narrowly distributed, preferring humid temperate climates, similar to potatoes. Originally, European ‘ale’ (not yet called beer) was produced without hops, which were introduced to Europe from the east. The first evidence of hops in Europe dates from 736 in the Hallertau region of present-day Germany, although the first mention of the use of hops in brewing in that country was not until 1079.

The westward spread of hops was slow, not reaching England until 1524. Ireland was still importing hops in the eighteenth century; more than 500 tons of English hops were imported through Dublin alone in 1752. In 1516, the Reinheitsgebot or ‘Bavarian Beer Purity Law’ established that barley, hops, and water were the only allowable ingredients in beer (yeast, while necessary for beer production, was unknown at the time). This became the template for beers across Europe. While non-barley beers (e.g. wheat beer), and non hopped-beers (e.g. flavored with gruit, an herb mixture) are still produced, across most of Europe ‘beer’ is synonymous with barley and hops. Since the northern range of hops does not include most of Scandinavia or Russia (or much of Scotland), these areas, for the most part, are outside of the beer belt and lie in the vodka/whisky belt.

Beer has also been promoted by authorities in many spirit-loving countries as a means of social control. Beer is less intoxicating per volume than spirits. The ‘Gin Craze’ in eighteenth century Britain led to a campaign to promote beer as an alternative. The famous prints ‘Beer Street and Gin Lane’ (1751) by William Hogarth, helped to lobby for what became the ‘Gin Act’ of 1751 which taxed and regulated gin. During the 18th century the Parliament of Ireland used taxation to encourage brewing at the expense of distilling, reasoning that beer was less harmful than whiskey.

The beer belt currently includes Belgium, Ireland, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, some parts of Austria, Luxembourg, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Slovenia, Central Federal District of Russia, the northern and eastern (German-speaking) cantons of Switzerland and the French regions of Alsace, Lorraine, Nord-Pas-de-Calais and the départment of Ardennes. There is quite a bit of overlap in these French regions, as well as in southwestern Germany and parts of Austria, due to the considerable consumption and cultivation of wine there, and Poland is also a part of the vodka belt. Overseas, countries settled by peoples from the European beer belt also may have beer as the dominant drink, such as the United States, Canada, and Australia.

The ‘wine belt’ is located to the south of the beer belt and the vodka belt and informally includes Spain, Portugal, Italy, Hungary, Moldova, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Greece, Cyprus, Albania, Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia, Bulgaria, Turkey, most of Austria, San Marino, Switzerland, Romania, France, and Southern Federal District of Russia. Slovenia is in the wine belt, but most of the country apart from the eastern parts overlaps with Beer Belt as well. Additionally, South-West England (if one classes cider as a wine analog), parts of the Low Countries (Belgium, Netherlands, Luxemburg), southwestern Germany and parts of Austria could be considered to lie either within the belt or within an overlap region.

Overseas, countries settled by immigrants from the European wine belt also may have wine as the dominant drink, such as Argentina, Chile and Uruguay. Wine is also important in countries such as Australia and South Africa, which while settled by European beer-belt peoples, also have warmer Mediterranean climates better suited for wine production.

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