Anglo-Saxons have a bit of a chip on our shoulder, compared to the French, when it comes to our drinking patterns.
Having lived in France for over 30 years and observed they way the French approach booze, I was convinced that the French drank less and in a more civilised way than the Brits. This was not based on sound market research but on experience and observation. Having organised many events for a mixed British/French crowd over the years, it has been my experience that French caterers always increase their allowance of alcohol (and price) when told that Brits would make up the majority of the guest list, expecting per head consumption to outstrip their normal calculations.
Brits also ‘enjoy’ a reputation as binge drinkers, especially in younger people. The definition of binge drinking changes from year to year and is no longer associated with falling down dead drunk in the streets. Officially binge drinking is now considered as 5 or more drinks for men, and 4 or more drinks for women in about 2 hours.
Then there is the scary image that Anglo-Saxons have of French women; so many recent books are making us paranoid about how wonderful French women are; they don’t get fat, they’re children don’t throw food, are effortlessly chic, etc. etc. On top of which they appear not to drink to excess – although some may argue this is not necessarily an enviable quality. I’m not the only one who thinks this. Twice, driving home in rural France, we have been breathalysed; fortunately neither time was my husband was over the limit – although the gendarme kindly suggested that perhaps Madame should drive home. He didn’t even think about breathalysing me – those clever French women definitely have a sober image.
I’ve attended many a French dinner party where the women seem to just dip their lips into the wine without really imbibing, perhaps it’s because French men make sure their partners are the designated drivers or perhaps they are all closet drinkers – more research needed to be done!
So I started looking at these figures to try and address some of these preconceptions about French drinking habits, especially those of French women for my book ‘The Drinking Woman’s Diet’.
Fortunately in preparation for the up coming Vinexpo in Hong Kong next month, the wine fair’s organisers, in conjunction with market research group The IWSR, released their latest market research on the future of world wine consumption. Unsurprisingly France and Italy continue lead the world, drinking about 45l of wine per head every year, almost double of the UK figures of 25 litres per head with the US is way behind at about 12 litres.
The World Health Organisation tells a different story. The figures are a little out of date (2010) and may have a different bias as they are under the name ‘Substance abuse’ but they make for interesting reading. Expressed in litres of equivalent pure alcohol (beer, spirits & wine combined) we’re not that far from each other but the order remains the same: France at 12.2 litres per capita, UK 11.6 litres and USA 9.2 litres.
What is interesting is what we drink. In France over 50% of that alcohol is consumed as wine compared to 33.8% in the UK and only 17.3% in the USA, where beer accounts for 50% of the alcohol consumption. Spirits are also highest in the USA. The importance of wine drinking in France is not surprising – they make the stuff after all. Italy has an even higher percentage with over 65% of total alcohol consumed as wine.
And binge drinking? The WHO report refers to ‘heavy episodic drinking’ and claims that 29.8% of the French binge drink compared to 27% of the Brits and 16.2% of the population of the US. So the French beat us again.
And the image of the wayward youth of Britain, clogging up the high streets of English city centres on a Saturday night? It would appear that since that 2010 report today’s youth are changing their ways. The UK’s Office of National Statistics shows that binge drinking is down from 29% in 2005 to 18% per cent in 2013 and that over a quarter of 16 to 24-year-olds are now teetotal, an increase of over 40% since 2006. These figures clearly don’t agree with the vision of the youth of Britain falling down drunk in Britain’s city centres of a weekend.
The Vinexpo report also predicts Millennials will be reducing their wine consumption over the next few years: drinking less but better and a taking a similar interest in craft beers and spirits. From a marketing point of view, quality, origin and a story seem to appeal to this lucrative market segment.
But what about the ladies? According to the WHO report, French women consume just over 7 litres pa whereas British women consume a mere 6.9 litres. Well, that puts paid to my theory that French woman don’t drink as much as English women.
However all is not lost, back to the WHO’s ‘heavy episodic drinking’ it would appear that 14.4% of French women binge drink as opposed to 16.8% of British women – is this where British women live up to our reputation as party animals?
Interestingly the WHO report includes a margin for under reporting, as they wisely suspect people underestimate (lie?) about how much they drink. Despite this bias, it is important for companies to see who is drinking their products and where their markets are going. It’s certainly interesting to see where the figures contradict or confirm the cultural stereotypes we hold about drinking.
If the French don’t drink less they do drink differently, as the majority of their alcohol consumption is wine, it is mainly consumed at meal times. You will rarely meet (French) friends for drinks in France, not that they’re anti social but they drink with food, they’ll meet you for dinner or lunch. Yes they are the champions of the ‘aperitif’ but very much as a pre meal experience.
All in all I’m delighted to learn that we Brits can finally shake off, perhaps with a Gallic shrug, the image of being the boozers of Europe. We can sip our wine over dinner with our continental cousins. Or is it all about appearances? Perhaps getting a little loud and legless is deemed more social acceptable in the UK and we ladies don’t mind calling a taxi to drive us, and our partners, home?