Starting young is the key to life-long alcohol consumption, according to the findings of a recent report by market research group Mintel. The survey of drinking habits in five key European markets shows that Britain and France have the highest proportion of drinkers, primarily because the culture in those countries is to start drinking at an early age.
Mintel’s research revealed that 89 per cent of Britons drink alcohol at home or elsewhere, closely followed by the French with 88 per cent. Just over 75 per cent of Spaniards regularly drink alcohol, while the figure drops to around 33 per cent for Germany, where concerns over the health risks of alcohol consumption and a proposed ban on alcohol advertising could spell hard times ahead for the drinks industry.
Starting young seems to be the key to this difference in consumption patterns. Mintel said that 78 per cent of British adults under the age of 20 regularly consume alcohol, with this figure rising to 93 per cent among 45- to 54-year-olds and then declining slightly over the age of 65 to 85 per cent.
While the consumption patterns in France are similar – 89 per cent of those aged over 65 are regular drinkers, according to the report – the picture is altogether different in Spain, where the peak consumption age group is 25 to 44 and then declines to under 60 per cent among those aged 65 and over. In Germany, the figures are worse still, with just 55 per cent of those in the oldest age bracket consuming alcohol on a regular basis.
What is surprising is that while alcohol consumption starts early in the UK and France, the drinking cultures there differ greatly. “"It is interesting to note that drinking at a young age is highest in the UK where giving children alcohol is frowned upon,” commented Anne Bourgeois, European consumer goods consultant at Mintel.
In France it is much more acceptable for children to drink alcohol, and in particular wine, from an early age, and a similar situation is seen in Italy, where around 70 per cent of those under 20 drink alcohol. Ironically, it is perhaps the general reluctance to introduce British children to alcohol at an early age that leads to the high percentage of young people actually drink alcohol – whether before or after the legal drinking age of 18. Forbidden fruit tastes the sweetest, and as with many other things which are considered as taboo for children, the ban only serves to increase the desire to try.
British wine boom confirmed
The huge increase in the volumes of wine sold in the UK over the last 15 years or so, driven mainly by the major supermarket groups expanding their wine sections and the perception of wine as a sophisticated drink, is clearly shown by the fact that some 64 per cent of Britons are regular wine drinkers, just 1 per cent fewer than in France, more traditionally perceived as a wine-loving nation.
However, per capita consumption is still very low compared to the rest of Europe, and in particular the French. Wine drinkers in France drink around 55 litres each per year, far more than in the UK, but this figure is also a far cry from the heady heights of the 1960s, when per capita consumption in France was as high as 120 litres a year.
"The shift in consumption trends and lifestyles in France is reflected in the growth of the soft drinks and bottled water markets,” said Bourgeois. “Expenditure in these markets has developed more swiftly than for wine.”
The relative decline in consumption in France is in stark contrast to the UK, where the increasing array of wines available through the supermarket sector – and the efforts of retailers to demystify wine and make it more accessible – has helped turned Britain from a nation of beer drinkers to a nation of wine lovers. Almost two-thirds of the UK population drink wine and over a third of these are heavy users, according to Mintel.
Germany, traditionally seen as another country of beer drinkers, has also registered a sharp rise in wine consumption, with the potential health benefits of wine consumption (and perhaps also the significant efforts of German wine producers to improve the quality of their output) the principal driver of growth in this segment of the market.
Particularly good news for the German wine industry is that the increase in consumption is coming not just from existing drinkers buying more wine but also from a general expansion of the consumer base. Mintel’s report shows that while sales of wine grew 5 per cent to 1,270 million litres between 1997 and 2000, the percentage of adult drinkers grew to 69 per cent during the same period.
Britons keep their spirits up
The picture is far less rosy for beer and spirit producers in Germany, with consumption declining steadily over the last two decades, although beer sales have rallied somewhat in the last couple of years, and the spirits category as a whole has suffered mixed fortunes over the last few years.
Britain is the leading market for white spirits – in particular vodka, gin and white rum – with 43 per cent of adults drinking them on a regular basis, compared to 22 per cent in France and just 15 per cent in Spain (despite the latter nation’s position as one of the key European markets for gin). However, these figures do not include anis, the popular French aperitif which is drunk by around 38 per cent of people there.
In contrast, France is the leading market for brown spirits – such as whisky (or whiskey), brandy and dark rum – in western Europe. Some 37 per cent of French adults regularly drink whisky alone, while the heavy output of Scotland helps British drinkers to second place in the whisky sector with 33 per cent of adults partaking on a regular basis.
Vodka is most popular in the UK, with consumption by 25 per cent of adults higher than that of France (10 per cent), Spain (9 per cent ) and Germany (8 per cent ) combined. Gin consumption follows a similar pattern, with 19 per cent of British adults favouring the spirit compared to 8 per cent of French, 9 per cent of Spanish and 3 per cent of Germans. White rum is equally popular in Britain and France, where it is the preferred tipple of around 12 per cent of adults, Mintel said.
Despite the strength of white spirits, they are among the most popular products consumed by the younger generations of drinkers, especially in the UK. Consumption of white spirits reaches 55 per cent among adults aged 20 to 24, and while it declines with age, it is still relatively high (30 per cent) among consumers over the age of 65. In Germany, Spain and France, consumption among younger drinkers reaches around 25 per cent.
Britain is bottom of the league for brown spirits, at least as far as younger drinkers are concerned, but this is one of the rare categories where consumption increases with age. British consumers drink more brown spirits than their counterparts in France, Spain and Germany by the time they reach the 45 to 55 age group. The long-term efforts of brown spirit makers to attract younger British drinkers – with some success in the case of American whiskey, for example – have done little to impact the success of white spirits, and in particular vodka.
The future looks even more difficult for brown spirits, given the fact that white spirit consumption trends which have already taken the US by storm are now appearing in the UK, the traditional gateway to Europe for US products, and from there to the rest of the Continent.
These include cocktail and shot drinking (particularly of premium white spirits such as flavoured vodkas and tequilas) which have led to the proliferation of style bars in many major cities and an explosion in the number of brand extensions such as flavoured vodkas and aged tequilas.
Stark evidence of German beer decline
While it will come as no surprise to see that the UK has a high proportion of beer drinking adults (64 per cent of the adult population, according to Mintel), the revelation that Germany is the only country of the five covered by the Mintel report where the percentage of beer drinkers is less than 50 per cent – clear evidence of the woes faced by the brewers in a country which is one of the world’s leading producers of beer. The Italians prop up the beer consumption table, however, with less than 30 per cent of adults opting for beer. France is the next smallest market with 36 per cent.
"Drinking alcohol separately from meals is a recently learned behaviour and is unlikely to replace the Italians' traditional pattern of socialising around the dinner table. Alcohol consumption itself is declining in Italy and will continue to do so. Paradoxical as it may sound, the effects of alcohol are considered the least attractive aspects of drinking. This obviously militates against increased consumption," commented Bourgeois.
It is the younger generation which leads the way in the UK – no surprise given the success of the premium imported beer segment so favoured by drinkers under 20 – with over 60 per cent of younger Britons opting for beer compared to just 37 per cent in Spain.
This trend towards premium beer is common to all European nations, Bourgeois said, and could yet prove to be a life line for the beleaguered German brewers, many of which are focusing production on beer-mix products (such as the beer and cola mixes produced by Diebels or beer and lemonade products made by Binding).
These are now well established, and are prompting development of other mixed products, in particular the mixture of beer and other alcoholic drinks (such as Desperados, the beer-tequila drink produced by Heineken which has been around for some time already).
Innovation and new product development, particularly in beer and spirits, will clearly continue to drive growth in the European market for some time, but with wine producing countries in Europe turning increasingly to the more lucrative export markets, it will be interesting to see whether domestic consumption patterns suffer as a result.