“I gave her cakes, and I gave her ale, and we was wond’rous merry!”
— Henry Purcell (British composer, 1659 – 1695, tune here)
On the eve of the First World War, wine was – startlingly – a major pre-occupation for the French leadership, for several weeks. Absinthe, too. One government minister remarked that the wine-drinking, absinthe-sipping, even ‘effeminate’ Frenchman was no match in war for the supposedly more masculine, “beer-filled Teuton”. The British were a happy half-way house, it seemed, enjoying wine and spirits in moderate measure, but beer for the most part, and – consequently, it seemed – were a decent match for the Germans on the battlefield.
How times have changed. The youth of France, surrounded by Médoc, Gevrey-Chambertin and Sancerre, now prefer a large measure of Kronenbourg 1664, while the youth of Britain have, apparently, been turning more to the delights – and relative cheapness – of wine.
In Britain, French drink is held in high regard; in France, British drink is exotic and appealing. Well, plus ça change: cross-channel grass-is-greener syndrome has long been a feature of Franco-British interaction. Steak-frites, the essence of French cuisine, is originally a British dish, from a time when France’s meat supply was mostly rotten, while Britain enjoyed exquisite produce. Maurice Chevalier, the stereotypical Frenchman, wore entirely British fashion. And so the pendulum has swung once more in the field of booze, too. The French are drinking beer; the British are drinking wine (although “real ale” is a notable exception, and actually mitigates part of the problem).
Whatever one’s view of the archaic and almost comical attribution of tipple-preference to national characteristics and war prospects, quoted at the start of this article, this particular warhorse has once again reared its ugly head. Tax on booze has been proposed in Britain, to curb binge-drinking. This goes some way to explaining the switch away from beer to wine, à la française. It is cheaper for the average young couple, especially in the midst of recession, to remain at home with a half-decent £7 bottle of wine, than it is for them to leave the house and attend a pub, where a pint now nudges three pounds – more than one round and you’re down on the deal. Sharing that bottle of wine with a partner, rather than a pint with a pile of mutual mates, is becoming the norm.
This has three effects:
- To change the British drinking culture from beer to wine.
- To reduce social contact at a traditional juncture, the pub. And –
- To take a chunk out of the British economy.
Why the third point? Bluntly, Britain’s a bit bloody short on decent wine of its own. She’s far better at brewing a decent pint, an art – even a science – at which perhaps only Germany’s brewers (and perhaps the Belgians, Czechs, New Zealanders and Australians) are equally talented. Hence the “beer-filled Teuton” of France’s despairing pre-war leadership. This means that most of the (cheap) wine Britons drink comes from France, Spain and Italy. Money, in short, flies out of British pockets into those of Continental vintners, both at the expense of Britain’s domestic economy, and one of her oldest social establishments.
A solution, then. A tax on European wine? No – both unimaginative (extra taxes are always somewhat of a blunt political instrument) and illegal (such tariffs not being entirely in the spirit of European co-operation). A big subsidy on beer? No – both irresponsible (“free beer” is one of those things a novelty political party might stand for) and, again, illegal (British brewers and French farmers should probably never appear on the same side of an argument). A more subtle half-way house, perhaps, just as Britain’s drinking was perceived to be all those years ago before World War One. A tax break specifically for casked pub beer – ideally focussing on ‘real ale’, perhaps coupled with a stronger ‘appelation’ award system. This would benefit pub-goers: the same amount of alcohol consumption, since one bottle of wine or several pints would then amount both to the same units of alcohol as well as price. It would benefit social interaction, filling up community meeting-points rather than isolating people inside their homes to drink.
There are obvious problems here, of course: any reduction in the cost of drinking is doubtful as to social responsibility. Yet a balancing of off-licence hours and pub-closing times could partly address this very issue if done in tandem. Another problem would be overcrowding of pubs in major centres, which are less community meeting-points, but more simply watering-holes. A focus on ‘real ales’ would, again, partly address this, turning beer into a more appreciated tipple, as wine is, than a bland booze-content-driven effort, which ignores taste and local-sourcing awareness. Supermarkets might get on board with a new trend in this area, which is well overdue.
I stop at this point, to invite discussion. Perhaps it might be best to leave you with a letter to the Editor in last week’s Telegraph, which sums up the issue rather nicely. And perhaps one day the people of Britain, neither wine-supping Frenchman, nor beer-filled Teuton, might indulge a little in a fine ale, and be “wond’rous merry” once more. In times such as these, we certainly need it.