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Continental drinking: qu’est-ce que c’est?

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

Does drink sneak up on you? A recent UK Government campaign warns that it might, especially if you’re the kind of person who likes the odd glass of wine or beer at home.


"Don't Let Drink Sneak Up on You"UK Dept. of Health

One drink leads to two and then … well, most of us probably recognise the pattern.  But did you know drinking two large glasses of wine a day could make you three times as likely to get mouth cancer?  No? You do now. The irony is that this campaign targets a type of drinking that British policymakers have often encouraged: the relaxed, civilised glass of wine at home, as opposed to the raucous skinful down the pub.  That is, the ‘continental’, as opposed to traditionally (or, stereotypically) British approach. At the same time, the Coalition Government wasted no time after its election in seeking to reverse many of the liberalising measures contained in New Labour’s 2003 Licensing Act – measures which New Labour, much to its own regret, sold on the promise they would create a ‘continental café culture’ on the high streets of Britain.

Continental cafe

Better than a pub?

Evidence on the impact of the 2003 Act is mixed: on the one hand overall consumption has declined slightly since 2005 and liberalisation didn’t create a widespread ‘24-hour drinking’ culture – despite this being a favourite slogan among hostile headline-writers.  However, the failure of relaxed licensing to address existing problems of outlet density and associated antisocial behaviour in city centres has been characterised by many critics as proof that the attempt to encourage continental drinking in Britain was always a dangerous delusion.

Plus ca change…?  The British certainly have a long history of comparing their drinking to other Europeans – though not always unfavourably.

A Delicate Diet

George Gascoigne, 'A delicate diet for dainty-mouthed drunkards' (1576)

Complaining about a rise in British drinking, the sixteenth-century courtier George Gascoigne blamed the influence of the Germans, who he called ‘the continual wardens of the drunkard’s fraternity’.  Fifteen years later, Thomas Nashe blamed a fashion for hard drinking on the influence of the Dutch.  In 1635, by contrast, the playwright Thomas Heywood accused the Danes of first bringing ‘wassail bowls’ and ‘elbow-deep healths’ into England.

Nevertheless, since the 19th century the trend has usually been towards idealising continental (that is, French) styles of drinking.  When William Gladstone reduced tariffs on French wine imports in 1860, it was sold as an opportunity to ‘civilise’ British drinking habits by making wine more widely available.  To reinforce the point, Gladstone introduced legislation making the sale of wine for home consumption and in restaurants much easier.  Wine sales rocketed in the following decade – but then, so did sales of all other alcohol so the ‘civilising’ claim remained questionable.

Beer is best

A soupcon of beer, sir? 1936 advert

In the early 1900s reduced household incomes and new leisure opportunities triggered a decline in drinking that was magnified by the outbreak of war.  By the 1920s consumption had plummeted and brewers, seeking to claw back middle class drinkers, looked to the continental café for inspiration.  The so-called ‘improved pub movement’ saw a raft of new and renovated pubs appear throughout Britain, many of which featured table service, food, wine and open plan seating.  Despite massive investment, however, the ‘improved pub’ didn’t take root.  In 1931, a Royal Commission on Licensing, celebrated the fact that drunkenness appeared to have ‘gone out of fashion’, but identified reduced affordability, education, better housing and stricter licensing as causes, while noting dismissively that among pub improvers there was ‘some tendency to idealize the conception of the average continental establishment.

Naughty, not nice

The real France a box. 1982 advert.

The attempt to turn pubs into grand cafés failed, but the British did eventually become a nation of wine-drinkers.  Since the 1960s wine consumption has increased enormously. Supermarket sales have been key to this, but so too has been increased foreign travel, the globalisation of the wine market and the rise of aspirational drinking among an expanded middle class.

The rise in British wine-drinking has mirrored the decline of the British pub.  Today sales of alcohol for home consumption (including beer) outweigh sales in licensed premises.  Gladstone’s vision of Britain as a nation of domestic wine-drinkers has been achieved.  We have, at last, caught up with the French, and – alors! – now have liver disease rates to match as well.  Having spent much of the twentieth century well down the European drinking league, the British have more recently moved up the table.  The postwar increase in overall consumption has been due, in no small measure, to wine.

So, where does that leave the dream of “continental drinking”?   The 2003 Licensing Act reinforced the notion that the British simply can’t drink responsibly – but filling city centres with stand-up drinking dens (a process which, in fact, predated 2003 by quite some time) was hardly the continental model.  As for the now-entrenched culture of wine consumption, it is undoubtedly linked to fluctuations in alcohol-related illness – as it always was on the continent (though social deprivation is also a key factor determining levels of alcohol-related mortality).  The long-term economic costs of that may eventually dwarf the costs of antisocial behaviour.

Tasting note

Fruity, toffee, pineapple...

Having found continental drinking to be not all it promised, there are signs of a return to a more homegrown solution.  In another ironic twist, British health campaigners are increasingly pointing to the old-fashioned pub as the best defence against both public binge drinking and excessive home consumption.  At the same time the craft beer revolution continues to spread throughout Britain, bringing with it a new connoisseurship of ale which incorporates much that is normally associated with wine-buffery: from food matching to tasting notes.

Just as the continental café was always something of a myth, so the perfect British pub – as George Orwell’s famous  ‘Moon Under Water’ demonstrates – is something of an ideal.  Nevertheless, it seems that the pub, that most un-continental of social spaces, is now providing evidence that maybe British drinking culture was never entirely bad after all.

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