Alcohol belts of Europe

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The alcohol belts of Europe.
  Vodka belt
  Beer belt
  Wine belt

The alcohol belts of Europe are regions in Europe which are considered to be divided by association with either beer, wine or spirits.[1][2][3] 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.

Vodka belt[edit]

The vodka belt.

Being an informal term, the "vodka belt" has no established definition. However, the general definition tends to include the following states as significant producers and consumers of vodka:

The few EU countries of the vodka Belt produce over 70% of the EU's vodka.[6]

The southern boundary of the "vodka belt" roughly corresponds to −2 °C January isotherm. 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 "vodka belt" 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, while the political and aristocratic minority preferred imported wines or other alcoholic beverages that were considered less plebeian.[4] There are exceptions, with Żubrówka - a type of Polish vodka that dates back to the 16th century, became popular among the szlachta (nobility) as well as the peasantry as early as the 18th century.

In his book about the Soviet Union,[7] 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 characterised by a higher occurrence of binge drinking compared to the rest of Europe.[8] 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.[9]

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).[10] 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.[11] In Russia, annual consumption of beer has grown from 12 litres per capita in 1995 to 67 litres in 2006 (but still remains lower than consumption of vodka).[citation needed]

The term has been generating much buzz since 2006 in relating to the "vodka war"[12] within the European Union about the standardisation 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".[6][13][14] 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..."[12]

Beer belt[edit]

A map of countries by average beer consumption.

The "beer belt" is the territory covered by countries in Europe where beer is historically the most popular alcoholic beverage.[15] The beer belt is located to the southwest of the vodka belt and to the northeast of the wine belt.[16][17]

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.[citation needed] 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.[18]

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.[19] 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. flavoured with gruit) 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 (see "vodka belt" above).

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.[20]

As of 2012 the beer belt 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.[21] 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.

Wine belt[edit]

A map of countries by average wine consumption.

The "wine belt" is the territory covered by countries in Europe where wine is historically the most popular alcoholic beverage. The wine belt is located to the south of the beer belt and the vodka belt.[16][17][22][23] The wine belt has been variously defined as approximately between 41° - 44°N,[24] 30° - 50°N,[25] and 35° - 50/51°N.[26]

Countries in the wine belt include Spain, Portugal, Italy, Hungary, Moldova, Armenia, Georgia, Greece, Albania, Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia, Bulgaria, 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.[citation needed] Additionally, South-West England (if one classes cider as a wine analogue), parts of the Low Countries, southwestern Germany and parts of Austria could be considered to lie either within the belt or within an overlap region.[21]

Overseas, countries settled by immigrants from the European wine belt also may have wine as the dominant drink, such as Argentina. 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.

Arak belt[edit]

Further information: Arak (drink)
Anise, one of the main spices used in production of Arak.
Fennel, one of the main herbs used in production of Arak.

The wine belt is bounded by a string of Islamic countries from the south (the Maghreb) and east (Turkey and Azerbaijan), where consumption of alcohol was often incompatible with social norms (see Alcohol in Islam) and which, therefore, can be thought to comprise an "abstinence belt" depending on one's piousness. Alcohol consumption in southern Wine Belt countries such as Spain and Italy (11.6 and 10.6 liters of alcohol per capita, per year, as of 2005) sharply contrasts with estimated consumption south of Mediterranean: 1.5 liters/capita/year in Morocco, 1.0 liter in Algeria, 0.1 liter in Libya, and 0.4 liters in Egypt.[27]

Arak distilled from date palm sap was considered by some Muslims as a loophole in the prohibition against alcohol because it is neither made from grain nor fruit, and therefore not mentioned by name in the Qur'an, thus allowing its consumption. Prior to the arrival of Islam in those countries, most of them were wine-consuming (wine is still important in Israel and Lebanon); the exception was Egypt and Mesopotamia, where (merissa) beer predominated (on account of large production of grains).

Grapes continue to be cultivated in many of these countries; for example, Egypt ranks 13th in the world by grape production (as of 2009), and produces 1.5 million metric tons of grapes per year - almost as much as Australia. Most of these are table grapes, and only a tiny part of the total harvest is used to produce wine.

A liquor distilled from wine and flavoured with spices and herbs is known as arak, rakia, rakı or arrak and arraki (in Sudan). This arak belt extends into the southern Mediterranean, the Balkans and even France. Ouzo, absinth, sambuca, mastika, and pastis are very similar to arak and may be considered types of arrack. The term Arrack is also used for distilled liquors from India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. These are made from palm sap instead of grains or grapes. (For this type of spirit, see arrack.) The method of tapping date palms and distilling the fermented sap (palm toddy) also originates in the Middle East and Egypt where it was used in areas unsuitable for grape cultivation.

Expansion of the alcohol belts[edit]

For the brewing histories of individual regions, see Beer and breweries by region.
For a full history of the spread of wine, see New World wine.

European imperialism and emigration has spread Europeans' drink preferences across the world. While traditional indigenous alcohols are still produced (rice wine in East Asia), and new processes have created new alcohol belts (the rum belt in the Caribbean and Latin America, or tequila in Mexico), overall European alcohols are dominant across the globe.

Wine and beer moved in tandem with the Spanish conquistadors, but beer more quickly became established in the colonized areas, and spread more widely. Both indigenous Americans and Africans already produced beverages from fermented grains when Europeans arrived (tesgüino and pulque in Mexico, umqombothi in South Africa), but in both the Americas and Africa, barley-and-hops style beer has become more popular and profitable. The first official concession to brew European-style beer in New Spain was granted to Alfonso de Herrero in 1543 or 1544. Its exact location is unknown, but it is thought to have been located in the south of Mexico City (where Metro Portales is today) or in Amecameca, Mexico State.[28][29]

Beer arrived in New Netherland in 1587, with the first commercial brewery set up in 1632 by the Dutch West India Company in Manhattan. New France’s first commercial brewery was created in 1668 by Jean Talon in Quebec City. Dutch settlers brought beer to South Africa by the 1650s. Captain Cook had beer on board when he first sailed to Australia. Today, beer is the world's most widely consumed[30] alcoholic beverage; it is the third-most popular drink overall, after water and tea.[31]

Vodka spread east across Northern Eurasia with the expansion of the Russian Empire. Whisky spread from Ireland and Scotland to the New World, creating the new styles of American whiskey and Canadian whisky (note spelling differences). Later Eastern European immigrants brought a taste for vodka to the New World as well, and by 1975 vodka had overtaken Bourbon as the most popular spirit in the United States.

The first attempt to cultivate grapevines for wine in the New World began with the second voyage of Christopher Columbus on Hispaniola in 1494.


  1. ^ Dana (16 January 2010). "The geo-alcohol belts of Europe". Investorialist. 
  2. ^ "442 — Distilled Geography: Europe's Alcohol Belts". Strange Maps. 30 January 2010. 
  3. ^ David Grigg. (2004.) Wine, Spirits and Beer: World Patterns of Consumption, Geography, 89(2):99-110. JSTOR 40573955
  4. ^ a b "Krakow Beverages" at
  5. ^ See, e.g., Korotayev A., Khaltourina D. Russian Demographic Crisis in Cross-National Perspective. Russia and Globalization: Identity, Security, and Society in an Era of Change. Ed. by D. W. Blum. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008. P. 37-78; Khaltourina, D. A., & Korotayev, A. V. 'Potential for alcohol policy to decrease the mortality crisis in Russia', Evaluation & the Health Professions, vol. 31, no. 3, Sep 2008. pp. 272–281.
  6. ^ a b c Alexander Stubb, The European Vodka Wars, a December 2006 Blue Wings article
  7. ^ Alex de Jonge, "Stalin and the Shaping of the Soviet Union", Collins, (1986), ISBN 0-688-04730-0, the relevant excerpt online
  8. ^ "Alcohol Alert Digest", Institute of Alcohol Studies, UK.
  9. ^ Geoffrey A. Hosking (2001). Russia and the Russians: A History. Harvard University Press. p. 13. ISBN 978-0-674-00473-3. 
  12. ^ a b Vodka war: "MEPs serve up a compromise cocktail", a Europarliament news article
  13. ^ "EU Farm Chief Warns of Legal Action in Vodka Row", a 25 October 2006 Reuters article
  14. ^ "A spirited war: The search for the real vodka", International Herald Tribune, November 23, 2006
  15. ^ Geeraerts, Dirk (1999). "Beer and semantics". In Leon de Stadler; Christoph Eyrich. Issues in cognitive linguistics: 1993 proceedings of the International Cognitive Linguistics Conference. Walter de Gruyter. p. 35. ISBN 3-11-015219-3. 
  16. ^ a b BBC: Euro MPs spurn 'pure vodka' bid
  17. ^ a b BBC: Brussels braced for vodka battle
  18. ^ Corran, H.S. (23 Jan 1975). Purchase Used: A History of Brewing Check |url= value (help). Vermont, Canada: David and Charles PLC. p. 303. ISBN 0-7153-6735-8. 
  19. ^ "The London magazine, 1752", page 332
  20. ^ "Ireland Industrial and Agricultural", 1902, page 455
  21. ^ a b Belgium, country of beer!
  22. ^ "Charlemagne: In vino veritas". The Economist. June 14, 2007. 
  23. ^ Joel Waldfogel (September 22, 2006). "Global warming and vineyards.". Slate Magazine. 
  24. ^ Wines of Canada
  25. ^ Introduction To NZ Wines
  26. ^ Philp, Robert Kemp (1867). A Journey of Discovery All Around Our House. Houlston & Wright. p. 51. Retrieved 2008-06-26. 
  27. ^ "Global status report on alcohol and health" (PDF). 
  28. ^ "Artes e Historia La cerveza en nuestro país" [Arts and History-Beer in our country] (in Spanish). Mexico: CONACULTA. Retrieved 2009-11-21. 
  29. ^ "La Cerveza en Mexico" [Beer in Mexico] (in Spanish). Mexico: Cervecería Cuauhtémoc. Retrieved 2009-11-21. 
  30. ^ "Volume of World Beer Production". European Beer Guide. Archived from the original on 28 October 2006. Retrieved 17 October 2006. 
  31. ^ Nelson, Max (2005). The Barbarian's Beverage: A History of Beer in Ancient Europe. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge. p. 1. ISBN 0-415-31121-7. Retrieved 21 September 2010.