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Sunday, October 23, 2011

Just When You Thought You Knew Everything about Booze and Bars: Spanish Attitudes about a Cherished Pastime

For the purposes of full disclosure let me begin by saying that I am writing this in a Spanish bar. I’m only drinking a cup of coffee but then again I just got here and that situation is subject to change.

I think that I speak for a lot of Americans when I say that our idea of bars and drinking goes something like this. You go out to a bar and order a beer; then another and another; someone arrives late and tries to play catch-up by having a shot so you have a shot…maybe plural; hopes and dreams dashed, lives ruined; go home, eat a microwave burrito, and watch Sports Center; show up late, drunk, and very hung-over the next day for your job as a life coach; swear never to drink again right before agreeing to go to happy hour with someone you don't even like because everyone from last night is wimping out. I may have missed a couple of steps but I’m sure this sounds familiar not only to Americans but Brits as well (sorry but I don’t know what the British equivalent is for microwave burritos or Sports Center).  For the Spanish this scenario would seem totally alien even though the average person here has a closer relationship to a stable of bartenders than most Americans have with members of their own families.

It’s impossible not to notice immediately that there are a hell of a lot of bars in Spain. They have more bars per capita than any country in the world, something like six bars for every 1,000 inhabitants—three times more than England and six times more than Germany. It’s a thorny issue determining the whole chicken or egg question as far as which came first and whether or not we should order a beer while we argue the matter. Do people spend a lot of time in bars here because there are so many or are there a lot of bars to meet the demand? I suppose that I should clarify right from the start that a bar in Spain isn’t the same as a pub or a bar in The States. Bars here are more full-service affairs, like a coffee shop, restaurant, and bar rolled into one concept.

As far as consumption, Spain isn’t that impressive with folks drinking 11.7 liters per year (or one wedding reception) while the United Kingdom chugs 11.8 and Germany 12.  In the USA we drink only 8.6 liters, less if you don’t count Zima and white zinfandel. Spaniards have a much different relationship with booze than Americans or Brits. I think it would be quite unusual to see someone drinking at 8 o’clock in the morning in America while this is a common sight in Spain. An older gentleman sitting next to me is having a brandy as I sip my coffee. He probably half-expects me to take a nail file out of my purse or open a fruit roll-up from my Sponge Bob lunch box. The Spanish are generally very tolerant so the old brandy drinkers don’t voice their opinions of the boy choreographer sitting next to them drinking only a coffee. During the mid-morning almuerzo* at around 10.00 am it’s normal to see workers having a beer or glass of wine with their sandwich. Hell, even on vacation I usually wait until the crack of noon to crack open a beer. Even with these habits of early drinking you don’t notice much public drunkenness here, certainly much less than in America.

For the most part I see a very admirable moderation among Spanish drinkers—something I never really got the hang of. In my defense I have to say that I go overboard on everything. For example, I just made six liters of tomato sauce. I will also never be one of these folks who end up at rock bottom and then find the lord or whatever. My relation with alcohol would be somewhere between "well maybe just one little glass of wine" to "Cut off? I cut YOU off. I can kick all yer damn asses ya buncha pansies."  The defense rests. The verdict is guilty of an occasional lack of moderation on my part wherein I swear to be more Spanish in my habits of alcohol consumption.

*Any first year Spanish student knows that almuerzo means “lunch” in English but this isn’t a good translation of this Spanish meal. They have four meals a day here: desayuno (breakfast), almuerzo (a big snack before noon), comida (what we would call the midday meal or lunch), and cena (dinner). I've left out a few important feeding times in the Spanish day so as not to completely overwhelm those unfamiliar with the eating habits here.


  1. Hey, what about "merienda"? It isn't just for kids anymore. You can sneak a wine or beer with a tapita somewhere after 6pm (though here in Madrid the eating hours are blending as office hours change).

    But it is hard to explain the Spanish bar to outsiders. I tell my family it's like a New York Greek Diner with ginmill.

  2. Yeah, I left out merienda and tapas. I didn't want to overwhelm the American audience.


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