Changing Patterns in the Consumption of Alcoholic Beverages in Europe and the United States

ABSTRACT - Consumer researchers are interested in the degree to which global convergence is occurring along with various consumer behavior dimensions and to what extent the consumption patterns in different parts of the world are becoming similar. With increasing internationalization and cultural cross-fertilization, the industrialized societies of the world are converging in many ways. Shifts in alcoholic beverage consumption patterns over the past 40 years may represent a case in point. As traditional cultural boundaries become blurred, consumer preferences for certain types of alcoholic beverages appear to be driven less by long-standing local and regional traditions, and more by growing acceptance of a wider choice. The disparity of overall alcohol consumption among the countries studied has also decreased. Other powerful forces are likely to accelerate the pace of convergence in the future.


David E. Smith and J. Robert Skalnik (1995) ,"Changing Patterns in the Consumption of Alcoholic Beverages in Europe and the United States", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 2, eds. Flemming Hansen, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 343-355.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 2, 1995      Pages 343-355


David E. Smith, Ph.D., Copenhagen Business School

J. Robert Skalnik, M.A., National University, San Diego


Consumer researchers are interested in the degree to which global convergence is occurring along with various consumer behavior dimensions and to what extent the consumption patterns in different parts of the world are becoming similar. With increasing internationalization and cultural cross-fertilization, the industrialized societies of the world are converging in many ways. Shifts in alcoholic beverage consumption patterns over the past 40 years may represent a case in point. As traditional cultural boundaries become blurred, consumer preferences for certain types of alcoholic beverages appear to be driven less by long-standing local and regional traditions, and more by growing acceptance of a wider choice. The disparity of overall alcohol consumption among the countries studied has also decreased. Other powerful forces are likely to accelerate the pace of convergence in the future.


Consumer researchers, along with business and governmental leaders, are interested in the degree to which global convergence is occurring along various consumer behavior dimensions. In other words, to what extent are consumption patterns in different parts of the world becoming similar to each other? With increasing internationalization and cultural cross-fertilization, it is reasonable to believe that the industrialized societies of Europe and the Anglo-American world are converging in many ways. The growth of multinational and transnational corporate enterprises is another powerful force for global convergence of values and behaviors.

Shifts in alcoholic beverage consumption patterns over the past 40 years may represent a case in point. As traditional cultural boundaries become blurred, consumer preferences for certain types of alcoholic beverages appear to be driven less by long-standing local and regional traditions, and more by the growing acceptance of a wider variety of choice. Many nations with traditionally high wine consumption, for instance, have seen a decline in wine use and an increase in beer consumption. For example, the ratio of wine versus beer consumption on a per capita basis in France in 1950 was approximately 6:1. By 1990, that ratio had changed to less than 2:1.

The disparity in overall alcohol consumption among the countries studied has also decreased. In 1950, the per capita consumption of alcoholic beverages, absolute alcohol in liters, ranged from a high of 18.45 liters in France to a low of 2.07 liters in the Netherlands. By 1990, the gap had lessened comfortably from a high of 13.56 liters in Luxembourg to a low of 3.90 liters in Iceland.


A historical methodology was used for obtaining the statistical data for this research study. These secondary data were compiled and formulated and are presented in 12 tables. The analyses and conclusions are based on the statistical data on alcohol consumption from 1950 to 1990. Data from 1991 were used to compare the 40-year trend data.

This research was based on a comparative study of 19 countries. The European country selection is defined as the 12 member countries of the European Union and the six member countries of the European Free Trade Association. The United States was included because of its unique position as a consumer market and because of the cultural link with Europe.

The 19 countries of the study include: Australia, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States.


Today, as throughout history, alcoholic beverages are part of the culture of eating but are also a means of improving social gatherings. The effect of drinking small or moderate amounts of alcohol facilitates social contact and stimulates a collective feeling of well-being (Marshall 1979).

Many drinking situations include a range of rituals which have different associations for drinkers depending on their various alcohol cultures. The consumption of alcohol continues to be so widespread, and is so integrated into the culture that it develops naturally as culture itself gradually changes (Heath 1987).

Throughout history, different populations have established different patterns of belief and behavior with respect to alcoholic beverages. They also derive different kinds of satisfactions and dissatisfactions from drinking. Cross-cultural analysis of alcohol use focuses more on attitudes, values and other normative aspects of alcohol use than on the sheer quantity of alcohol consumed. This tends to hold true when we compare various groups and categories of people within a given population, by age, sex, occupation, socio-economic class, and religious affiliation (Heath 1987).

Heath (1990) suggests that there are different meanings conjured up by wine at religious communion, beer at a beach party, brandy after a lavish dinner, champagne at a wedding, or cocktails after work. The cultures of alcoholic consumption are many and varied within Europe and the United States, even today. The consumption of alcohol frequently takes the form of a rite or ritualistic behavior relating to the circumstances of drinking - like the use of wine as a symbol in religious services. The offering of alcoholic beverages at birth, baptism or confirmation, weddings and burials has a clear religious connotation but it is also regarded as a ritual by those who do not practise religion in their everyday lives.

Mediterranean countries are predominantly wine-drinking, while countries in the north and west primarily drink beer. Most consumers drink alcoholic beverages moderately, often as an accompaniment to their meals. Wine is usually consumed at meals while beer and spirits are mainly consumed apart from meals. These patterns remain largely intact despite considerable recent shifts in the consumption of different types of alcoholic beverages (Hukens, Knibbe and Drop 1992).

Drinking patterns in some countries developed naturally over a long period of time and consequently alcoholic beverage consumption may be deeply ingrained into the society's culture. This is especially true in the wine-producing nations such as Italy, Spain, France and Portugal where wine consumption is integrated into the daily lifestyles (Lolli et al 1958). Similarly, in Germany, beer consumption is so interwoven into the daily fabric, that the beverage is thought to contribute significantly to the nutritional intake of the male population of Germany (Sabroe 1994).



In other countries, the way beverages are used has influenced policies and control measures which have led to changes in drinking patterns (Saffer 1989a). In Finland there are different traditional use values associated with the different kinds of alcoholic beverages (Sulkunen 1976). Wine is seen as having nutritional value and is used as a normal beverage with meals; beer is, to a lesser extent, a mealtime beverage but, more importantly, its use is connected with daily social contacts and conviviality outside the home. In many countries, and particularly the spirits drinking nations, spirits has had neither of these uses.

In some countries, such as the United States, temperance movements formed in the 19th century, influenced government to take measures to shift consumption away from higher to lower alcohol content beverages (Miron and Zwiebel 1991). Such movements in Norway during the same period, while not effecting a change in the type of beverage consumed, did contribute to a reduction in the overall level of consumption (Davis and Walsh 1983).

In still other countries such as Belgium, Denmark, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, governments have unilaterally undertaken to change drinking patterns away from beverages of higher alcohol content to lower, through a number of control measures, not the least of which has been taxation levels (Saffer 1989b).

Since the end of World War II, new forces such as greater affluence, increased leisure time and travel, broader communication and the development of common trade areas, have changed and modified traditional drinking patterns. Even newer trends in drinking patterns in terms of consumption levels and in choice of beverage appear to have begun to emerge from the late 1970s or early 1980s in most countries, due in part to changes in their economies, changes in demographics and changes in societal attitudes. An example is the youth culture in Europe and the trend to drink the "new" beverages; beer in the south and wine in the north and west (Hukens, Knibbe and Drop 1992).

Patterns of alcoholic beverage consumption throughout Europe as well as in the United States, also reflect an expression of the generally observed convergence in a number of other cultural and economic contexts. Historically distinct, culture-related drinking patterns are subject to the influence of internationalisation apparent throughout the industrialised world, and this may be particularly strong inside the European Community (Wines and Spirits in the European Community 1993). However, tradition is deeply rooted in society and the cultures of drinking alcoholic beverages are strongly integrated into the general social cultures of the countries of the European Community (see table 5).

Periodic Gallup polls in the United States indicate that the number of drinkers in the adult population peaked at 71 per cent in 1976 from a low of 58 per cent in 1939. Since that time, the proportion of drinkers has decreased to 57 per cent. Of those who do drink, only 52 per cent indicated in 1990 that they had had a drink in the previous week, compared to 68 per cent in 1984; 78 per cent said they had consumed seven drinks or less, in the seven days prior to the survey (Hukens, Knibbe and Drop 1992).

According to the 1990 poll, 64 per cent of men and 51 per cent of women aged 18 and over consume alcoholic beverages in the United States. The highest percentage of drinkers is 64 per cent found in the 30 - 49 year age group, followed by 61 per cent aged 18 - 49 years; among those aged 50 and over, there are 53 per cent abstainers, which is more than the drinkers (Hukens, Knibbe and Drop 1992). Slightly higher percentages of drinkers are also found in the population segments with higher education and income levels (Wells, Taylor and Turtle 1987).


One aspect of a drinking pattern is whether a population drinks a lot or a little. Another is the type of beverages consumed by the population (Marshall 1979).



Although there are differences in the average annual consumption of total alcoholic beverages, as well as in consumption of the different types of beverages, the research shows that the 19 countries studied, are becoming more similar in their drinking habits. As an example, in 1990 the French consumed over 13 liters of pure alcohol in one form or other annually, per capita, while Norwegians consumed only four liters; or the Germans drank about 143 liters of beer and the Italians only 23 liters (see table 6).

Tables 1 through 4 show international per capita consumption data of alcoholic beverages for the 19 countries studied, from 1950 to 1990 in ten year intervals and refer to registered consumption only (Danish Brewers Association 1993; ConfTdTration les Brasseurs du Marche Commun and EFTA Brewery Industry Council 1992; Vin- og Spiritus Organisationen in Denmark 1993; Bundesverband der Deutschen Spirituosen Industrie e.V. 1994). One caveat must be noted; the statistics are not perfect. However, these discrepancies are noted in the tables whenever the observations permit. In some countries, these figures may be understated due to unrecorded legal and illegal production of alcoholic beverages and duty-free imports by travellers returning home. In countries such as Sweden and Norway, unrecorded consumption from these and other sources may add an estimated 29 and 30 per cent respectively to total consumption figures. In other countries, the figures may be overstated due to purchases by visiting tourists or shoppers from neighboring countries. For instance, Luxembourg attracts both shoppers from neighboring countries because of its relatively low prices and a large number of visitors to the many international meetings held in the country, due to its role as seat of the Secretariat of the European Parliament and other European Community bodies (Wines and Spirits in the European Community 1993). Although figures for per capita consumption of spirits in the country are adjusted to take account of non-resident purchases, those for wine and beer are not. In countries such as Portugal and Spain, where the number of tourists visiting annually generally exceeds the indigenous population, total figures may be 10 and 15 to 25 per cent lower than recorded figures (Saffer 1989b).

Registered consumption of alcoholic beverages increased rapidly during the 1950s and early to mid-1960s in many countries. Much of the growth may have been attributable to recovery after World War II and to a growing number of people entering the alcoholic beverage market. However, in a number of countries, consumption began to level off in the mid-1970s, and in the 1980s, the high alcohol consumption countries were experiencing declines on a per capita basis, setting the trend for greater homogenity in per capita consumption of alcohol, in the countries studied.

Tables 5 through 12 show recent trends in alcohol consumption for the period from 1989 to 1991 (Produktschap voor Gedistillereede Dranken 1992; NABI Annual Statistical Report 1993; Canadean World Alcohol 1993). No country experienced positive growth in all three beverages and in two countries, Germany and the United States, consumption of beer, wine and spirits all declined. In the countries where total alcohol consumption grew over the period, increased beer and/or wine consumption contributed to the growth in all countries studied. Per capita consumption of wine and/or beer also increased in two of the 11 countries in which total consumption of alcohol declined or remained constant (see table 1).

Changes in beer consumption have been more evenly distributed during the period between 1970 and 1990, marking a trend toward greater similarity in beer drinking patterns among the countries studied. As illustrated in table 2, consumption of beer increased in 15 countries and declined in four. In the 15 countries in which beer consumption grew, the annual rate of growth was over 2 per cent in 14 countries. Where consumption declined, the rate of decrease was less than the average rate of increase. Generally, the great increases occurred in countries where per capita consumption had been relatively low by international standards (see table 8).



Of the alcoholic beverages, reduced spirits consumption, during the period between 1970 and 1990, has contributed most to the low or negative growth rates illustrated in table 3. In 11 countries, consumption of spirits either declined or experienced no growth. In nine countries, the average annual rate of decrease was more than one per cent, including six countries where the decline exceeded 10 per cent and four countries in which it was more than 20 per cent (see table 3). This trend in reduced spirits consumption is another example of the convergence of drinking patterns in the countries studied.

Wine has undergone the greatest growth rate. Trends in wine are shown in table 4, in which consumption increased in 13 countries and declined in six, during the period between 1970 and 1991. The annual rate of increase was over 1 per cent in 10 countries and exceeded 2 per cent in six. However, in half of the countries in which wine consumption declined, the annual average rate of decrease was over 2 per cent. The greatest decreases tended to occur in the highest wine consuming countries, resulting in a trend toward an equalization in wine drinking habits among the countries studied.

No single factor explains the reduction in total consumption levels nor the pronounced shift away from spirits to the lower alcohol content fermented beverages found in most countries, however, six distinct trends are evident (see tables 5 and 6).

1) Economic conditions in the 1980s have forced many governments to raise revenues and alcoholic beverage taxes have been increased substantially in a number of countries. The resulting increased prices, combined with a period of high unemployment and reduced real disposable income, may have contributed to shifts and reductions in consumption that may not have otherwise occurred (Brazean and Burr 1991). In Ireland, for example, where a high percentage of consumer expenditure goes to alcoholic beverages, reduced income levels during a recession in the early 1980s are thought to have led to consumption declines which lasted several years (see table 1).

2) In the United States, an aging population is believed to be contributing to reductions in per capita consumption, since in some cultures at least, consumption has been shown to decline with age (Pittman and White 1991).

3) In other countries, such as Norway, Sweden and Finland, long-term government control and taxation policies have sought to reduce consumption and shift drinking patterns to lower alcoholic beverages, particularly to beer (Saffer 1989b).

4) Increased wine consumption in a number of countries has been attributed to favorable tax treatment and increasing consumption by women, while in other countries, an international wine surplus which, in turn, impacted on trade and price levels, may have influenced growth (Saffer 1989b). In Spain and Portugal, on the other hand, higher wine prices resulting from poor harvests caused by mildew in the latter part of the 1980s, are believed to have contributed to the significant declines seen in those countries (Jenster, Jenster and Watchurst 1993).



5) Public concern over problems related to alcohol misuse, particularly in the areas of drinking and driving and alcohol consumption by young people, appears to have increased over the last decade in many of the countries surveyed. A number of governments have responded to these public concerns by strengthening their regulations governing drinking and driving. Many sponsor advertising campaigns directed at the problems of drinking and driving, underage drinking and the responsible use of alcohol and, in most of the countries surveyed, the alcoholic beverage industries sponsor similar campaigns. While some governments have discouraged consumption, such as in the Netherlands, or have outlined targets for reducing consumption over time, such as in Sweden, government programs in most of the countries emphasize the responsible use of alcohol and do not promote abstinence (Davis and Walsh 1983).

6) A trend, which is perhaps related to these issues and to changing attitudes towards lifestyle and health, has been the increasing consumption of lower alcohol and/or non-alcoholic beverages. As illustrated in table 2, more than half of the countries studied, show negative growth rates in total alcohol consumption during the 1980s. As discussed below, there has been a move away from fortified wines to lower alcohol content table wines for a number of years in many of the countries. While market shares are not large, non-alcoholic and/or lower alcohol beers have become more popular in recent years in a number of countries. In Italy, where production of lower alcohol beers were prohibited prior to 1989, non-alcoholic beers with less than 0.6 per cent alcohol by volume, attained a two per cent market share in 1990 (Pittman and White 1991).

The majority of adults consume alcoholic beverages in the countries surveyed and in most, the drinking population is stable. However, in a few of the countries surveyed, the percentage of abstainers has increased somewhat in recent years and in some, daily consumption of alcohol and quantities consumed have declined (see tables 5 and 6). Decline in the drinking population in the United States has been more pronounced than in some other countries; the percentage of adults consuming alcohol has fallen from a 1976 level of 71 to 57 per cent in 1990; only 51 per cent of women and 64 per cent of men aged 18 and over, now consume alcohol. It would appear that a growing segment of the population in the United States, with the support of anti-alcohol lobbies which have grown in strength, believe a healthier lifestyle entails abstinence, as opposed to the more widely-held view that moderate consumption is acceptable (Pittman and White 1991).


To some extent, the growth or decline in consumption of the various beverages in the last decade is a continuation of earlier trends, during the 40-year period of the study. In most of the countries studied, a traditional beverage historically accounted for a significant share of the alcoholic beverage market. However, over the years, the market share of the traditional beverage has tended to decline.







In 1960, beer accounted for over 50 per cent of total alcohol consumed in seven of the countries surveyed; Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Ireland, Luxembourg and the United Kingdom. Between 1960 and 1990, beer consumption declined and wine consumption increased in all these countries, except Ireland, as shown in tables 2 and 4. While the market share of spirits increased in some countries and declined in others, over the period the increases and declines were less, and significantly less in most countries, than the decline in the market share of beer or increase in the market share of wine.

A similar pattern can be seen among the countries where wine has traditionally held the largest market share, as shown in table 4. In Italy, France, Greece, Portugal and Spain, the market for wine has declined and the market share for beer has increased in all five countries over time. While the market share of spirits also increased in all of these countries, the increases were less than the increases in the market share of beer, except in the case of France, as illustrated in tables 2 and 3. This trend is further evidence of the shift to greater similarities in drinking habits.

In the countries where spirits accounted for most of the alcohol consumed in 1960; Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden, spirits share of the alcoholic beverage market has declined and both the beer and wine share increased in four of the Scandinavian countries over the period; Denmark being the only exception (see table 3).

By 1990, beer held over a 50 per cent market share in 12 of the 19 countries surveyed. These include all of the original beer drinking countries except Luxembourg; the United States, the Netherlands and Austria, where beer held less than 50 per cent of the market in the early 1960s; and two of the original spirits drinking nations, Finland and Norway (see table 2).

Wine accounted for over 50 per cent of the market in five countries in 1990; including three of the traditional wine consuming nations: France, Italy and Portugal, and Switzerland, where wine had held over 40 per cent of the market in 1960 (see table 3).

In the four countries with no dominant beverage in 1990, beer accounted for over 40 per cent of the market in Sweden, while wine held over 40 per cent in Luxembourg, Greece and Spain (see tables 2 and 4).

Also in 1990 spirits accounted for less than 50 per cent of the alcohol consumed in all the countries surveyed, and held less than 25 per cent of the market in two thirds of those surveyed. This negative shift in spirits consumption between 1980 and 1991, is illustrated in table 10. All of the countries studied, showed a decrease in spirits consumption. This shift to the beverages of lower alcohol content is significant and is underscored by the six trends noted earlier.


The decline in spirits consumption and consumption shifts to wine and beer, outlined above, may be related to traditional patterns of use associated with the three beverages. In general, fermented beverages are more often consumed in an integrated fashion than distilled alcohol. Sulkunen (1976) has described the alcohol culture in wine and beer drinking countries as "multidimensional" as opposed to spirits drinking countries where the alcohol culture has tended to be one-dimensional. An example of the multidimensional and integrated aspect of fermented beverage use is the association of beer and wine with meals. Distilled beverages may be taken before or after, but are not usually consumed during meals (Marshall 1979).



The multidimensional aspect of wine consumption and integration in the social fabric are exhibited in France, where drinking has been described as the national way of life. The French have a tradition of being "bon vivants." They like to drink because it tastes good, and it's a sign of friendship. A meal is not a real meal unless there is wine on the table (Sadoun, Lolli and Silverman 1965).

Wine and beer are much more associated with folk festivals, such as those in Austria and Germany, which are held in celebration of the harvest season. In the former Federal Republic of Germany, beer is consumed in large quantities on social and festive occasions and beer festivals are well known throughout the country. It is estimated that there are 500 beer festivals a year (Marshall 1979).

The pubs of England and Ireland are primarily beer-drinking establishments and hold a unique place in society in these countries, as do clubs in Australia. There, the availability of beer is considered to be only one of the amenities that these outlets provide (Gourvish and Wilson 1994).

In a number of countries, beer has a different seasonal pattern from spirits and wine. Sales of beer in the United States increase during the summer months. Its high consumption during the summer months suggests thirst-quenching and restitutive values. As opposed to the multidimensional aspects of beer and wine drinking, Sulkunen (1976) points out that: the spirits drinking countries can be differentiated from the others by the fact that the use of alcohol there is exceptional, but at the same time, conspicuous and segregated from other social activities; in those countries, the population is polarized into two groups, users and non-users. The use value of alcohol in these countries is primarily that of an intoxicant.

The habit of drinking to get drunk has been common in Norway, Sweden, Finland and Iceland. Although people may not drink continuously, when they do, a very large number often drink spirits in quantities sufficient to reduce themselves to unconsciousness. In Finland, the pattern of drinking is described in the following way; a typical Finn drinks rarely, usually at the weekend or on holidays, but then he drinks heavily. Most of the total consumption takes place in drinking situations which result in intoxication, and only a small proportion in social situations where the drinkers hardly become intoxicated (Sulkunen 1976). These drinking habits are gradually changing as can be seen in tables 9 and 10, which show more moderate spirits consumption patterns in those countries.

Although all alcoholic beverages are misused to some extent, evidence supports the premise that the positive use is more highly associated with lower alcohol content beverages while negative use is more highly associated with higher alcohol content beverages. Brenner (1983) stated that, in his study of seven countries, spirits consumption on a national per capita basis was associated with a significant risk of cardiovascular mortality, while beer consumption, and to a lesser extent wine consumption, was associated with substantially lower cardiovascular mortality. He did not attribute those important differences to spirits consumption, on an individual basis, being more pathological than beer or wine consumption. Rather, he was of the opinion that they were a reflection of the different use patterns; the risk of cardiovascular mortality in the case of spirits reflected heavy drinking, while the beneficial aspects of beer, and to some extent wine, reflected more moderate use. Recent studies show that moderate consumption actually prolongs life (Wells, Taylor and Turtle 1987).

There is additional evidence in the spirits drinking nations of a movement away from the historic patterns of consumption (see tables 9 and 10). For example, there are indications of increases in the frequency of alcohol consumption and declines in the quantities consumed in both Finland and Norway that drinking alone has decreased, while drinking in family gatherings has increased in recent years (Sulkunen 1976).








The amount of beer consumed varies significantly from country to country, although this trend is also converging. In Germany, one of the largest beer consuming countries, per capita consumption is over six times the level in Italy, one of the lowest beer drinking countries. Germans drink almost three times as much beer as Norwegians, twice as much as the Swiss and about one and a half times as much as in the United States (see table 7).

Most of the beers are produced using a bottom-fermentation process, such as lagers and pilsners. Ales, porters and stouts are produced using a top-fermentation process. Ales and porters are a popular drink in the United Kingdom, as are stouts in Ireland, but there is a strong trend toward lager in both countries (Gourvish and Wilson 1994). Lager gained a 50 percent share of the beer market in the United Kingdom for the first time in 1990 and in Ireland, the market share for lager has increased from 17 to 36 per cent over the decade. Ales were becoming more popular in the western part of Germany during the mid-1980s, but their growth appears to have levelled off in recent years (Jackson 1989).

Most countries have light or golden and dark beers, but generally the dark beers on the market represent only a small portion of consumption. Beers with unique ingredients may be found in some countries, such as Gueuze and the cherry flavored brews of Belgium (Jackson 1989).

For many years in some countries, there had not been a wide range of beers in terms of their alcohol content. However, this has been changing, as more brewers introduce lower alcohol, no alcohol and low calorie beers into the market. As discussed above, this change may be occurring in response to changing consumer attitudes toward health and increasing levels of concern about impaired driving (Greenaway 1990).

Light beers ranging at between 2.4 and 4.3 per cent alcohol by volume, which were introduced in the United States in 1974, have captured about 30 per cent of the beer market. Consumption of non-alcoholic and low alcohol products have remained flat in some countries, such as the United Kingdom and Denmark, but this may be partially explained by the comparatively low content of the regular popular beers with 3.7 to 4.6 per cent alcohol by volume. Sales have been growing in other countries, including France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and Italy. In the United States, sales of non-alcoholic beers have doubled in the last two years (Canadean World Alcohol 1993).

Examples of alcohol contained in beer from the countries studied, range from less than one per cent to a high of 10 per cent, but most beer consumed in continental Europe is in the range of 5 per cent alcohol by volume. Although stronger beers at or above 6 per cent alcohol by volume are available in many countries, they have never gained a very large part of the market when beers of 5 per cent alcohol or less have been available (Jackson 1989).

From a global perspective, beer consumers depend less on imports than the consumers of other alcoholic beverages. There are historical, practical and economic reasons why beer is not traded to the same extent as spirits and wine. In many countries, brewing was originally a cottage industry, and families brewed their own beer for everyday use. Eventually, societal change and/or government intervention brought about the emergence of local breweries to meet community needs. Commercial brewing only began to develop in many countries in the 1800s, after new technologies and transportation methods made it possible to produce and transport beer on a large scale. While modern technology and distribution systems have to some extent overcome the problems of bulk and relatively short shelf life, these beer characteristics still impede economical large-scale trade (Wilson and Gourvish 1990).



Also, consumers of beer have not tended to develop cosmopolitan attitudes toward beer to the same extent as they have toward wine and spirits (Cope 1993). Brands or styles of beer famous in one country may be completely unknown in others. Consumer preferences have tended to shift slowly from familiar regional flavors, the roots of which may date back to the era of the community brewmaster. Consumer preference for local beer is apparent in some countries through observation of the number of brewers in the country. In some countries, especially where beer continues to dominate the alcoholic beverage market, the brewing industry has continued to be supported by numerous small companies. Austria, Belgium and particularly Germany, are such examples. However, even in these countries, the international trend has been towards consolidation, primarily in response to economic and competitive conditions (Cope 1993). More efficient, larger-scale brewing companies have emerged and regional consumer tastes and preferences are being met by producing a number of different styles and brands of beer. In many of the countries surveyed, a relatively small number of companies now account for a major share of domestic beer production (Cavanagh and Clairmonte 1985).

Although the proportion of consumption that is imported continues to be much lower than in the case of spirits and wine, consumers in most of the countries surveyed appear to be developing a taste for foreign beer products. In recent years, imports have increased two-thirds of the countries surveyed. Foreign brands are also produced in many of the countries through licensing agreements with domestic brewers and in some cases through direct ownership of a domestic brewery. For example, foreign beers are brewed under license in countries such as Italy, Norway, Sweden and the United States, as well as in the United Kingdom and Spain, where domestic breweries have also been purchased by foreign companies (Cavanagh and Clairmonte 1985).


Most of the countries studied have their own unique spirits drink, which takes a large share of the spirits market. Generally, in the English-speaking countries, whisky has been the predominant beverage; in the southern European countries, brandy type beverages are popular; in the northern European countries, vodka or gin are often favored. The origins of the favored spirits beverage can frequently be traced back to the agricultural base of fruit or grain, indigenous to the countries (Wines and Spirits in the European Community 1993).

International trade in spirits has existed for centuries. One of the earliest imports into New World Countries was West Indies rum. The Dutch, too, were early exporters of liqueurs. The increasing globalization of international markets since 1950, has brought about changes within the spirits market which are similar to the trend away from traditional beverage categories discussed above.

Vodka, which was unfamiliar to most countries earlier in this century, is now enjoyed in all of the countries surveyed. Whisky, which had accounted for over 50 per cent of the spirits market in the United States, the United Kingdom and Ireland in the mid-1970s, has lost market share in recent years to vodka and other spirits. In Spain and Portugal, whisky consumption has been increasing at the expense of the traditional brandy type beverages; in Portugal, whisky accounted for 33 per cent of spirits consumption in 1990, compared to a 39 per cent share for brandies, and in Spain, brandy consumption has fallen from a 45 per cent market share in 1975, to 27 per cent in 1990, with whisky and, to some extent gin, showing continuous gains. The market share of whisky, gin and vodka, has more than tripled since 1975 in France, with corresponding declines in the popularity of brandy, aperitifs and liqueurs, while in Sweden, vodka and brandy have both declined in favor of whisky. In a country such as Switzerland, where prohibition of the production of spirits from potatoes, grain and molasses necessitates the import of all whisky, vodka, gin and rum, the share of imports in spirits consumption has increased by 47 per cent since 1975 (see table 9).

Alcohol content of distilled spirits may begin at 23 per cent alcohol by volume, and in some countries, beverages of 50 percent alcohol or more are quite popular. However, in most countries surveyed, the alcohol content of spirits averages about 40 per cent. The average alcohol content of spirits drinks is changing in some countries. In the United States, the average strength of spirits, which in 1950 was 45 per cent by volume, has fallen to as low as 37 per cent (King 1989).

Over the past eight years, spirits coolers have been introduced in Europe and the United States. These products, which can contain up to 15 per cent alcohol by volume, are prepared from a mixture of spirits with water and/or fruit or vegetable juices, to which may be added natural and/or artificial flavors, sweetening agents and/or food additives, and which may be carbonated. Generally, they have had mixed success in penetrating the alcoholic beverage markets in the countries surveyed (European Drinks Marketing Directory 1991).


As in the case of beer and spirits, there is a considerable variation between the countries surveyed as to the level of wine consumption. The people of the highest consuming country, France, consume about 17 times the amount consumed by Ireland, the lowest wine consuming country (see table 11).

Still or table wines are much more popular than dessert or fortified wines. A third category, carbonated or sparkling wines, account for 10 per cent or less of the market. They are, however, a popular beverage in the former Federal Republic of Germany, where they account for 20 per cent of the market (Robinson 1994).

Fermented wines generally contain between 7 and 14 per cent alcohol by volume, although most wines consumed are in the 10 to 12 per cent range. Fortified wines, produced by adding distilled spirits during or after fermentation, have a much higher alcohol content (George 1989). There has been a significant shift in the market share from fortified wines to table wines. For example, the market shares of the stronger wines have decreased since the mid-1970s. In Norway and Denmark, market shares for fortified wine of over 20 per cent in 1975 have declined to about eight and four per cent respectively (Robinson 1994).

"Light" and low alcohol wines containing fewer calories and less alcohol than regular table wines have been introduced in several countries including Norway and Sweden (Robinson 1994). Swedish sales of the new products, which contain a maximum of 7 per cent alcohol by volume, amounted to 0.2 per cent of total wine sales in 1990. In the United States, on the other hand, the market share of wine cooler products, which combine wine and citrus or other non-alcoholic beverages and average about 4.5 per cent alcohol by volume, grew rapidly following their introduction in 1983 and by 1986 they held a 20 per cent share of the wine market, but declined to about 17 per cent in 1990 (see table 12).

The degree of trade in wine varies significantly between countries. As expected, those countries with a climate suitable to viticulture, import very little and northern countries rely heavily on those countries to meet the increased demand (Jenster, Jenster and Watchurst 1993).


In summary, alcohol consumption appears to be related to several factors, including general economic conditions, increasing health consciousness, as evidenced by a switch to beverages containing less alcohol, more stringent laws against drinking and driving, and a tendency for consumers to drink products of a higher quality. In addition, consumers in many countries are turning from drinks traditional to their region to beverages that are newer to them. In many areas where wine drinking has been traditional, beer consumption is increasing. At the same time, in many traditional beer drinking nations, the reverse is occurring.

This trend is being reinforced by changing tax regulations. In the past, governments have tended to impose relatively high taxes for imported products, while taxing drinks traditional to their region rather lightly. Under pressure from the European Union, which has been driven by a desire to bring about equal opportunity for market access throughout member countries, recent changes have generally narrowed the tax differences between home products and imported beverages, thereby boosting demand for the latter.

Other powerful forces are likely to accelerate the pace of convergence in the future. Advancing technology will have a unifying effect on disparate cultures. Increasingly standard forms of education will promote further uniformity in attitudes and beliefs and higher standards of living will supersede national and cultural boundaries and lead to more uniform social values.


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David E. Smith, Ph.D., Copenhagen Business School
J. Robert Skalnik, M.A., National University, San Diego


E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 2 | 1995

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