In 2009 I was taking a train somewhere in Bavaria. It was early afternoon, and I was sitting by the window, watching the sunny scenery of outstretching fields and forests outside. An elegantly-dressed, slightly overweight man of about 60 came in and sat at the table seats on the other side of the aisle. He placed a leather briefcase on the table and took out a newspaper, spreading it out carefully, making sure it doesn’t wrinkle. With the same elegant movement, he pulled a can of beer from the briefcase, opened it with a soft hissing sound and proceeded to reading the paper while sipping the beer. I switched my focus to the scenery inside the train. In approximately 15 minutes he finished half the newspaper and all of the beer. He put the can in the trash bin next to the seat, and just as I thought the show was over he pulled out a second one. 15 more minutes later, he was putting away the second empty can and I was collecting my jaw.
A year later I was meeting a German friend in Tel-Aviv. We met at around four o’clock in the afternoon, next to a coffee shop. He had a bottle of Israeli beer in his hand, so we sat outside on a step as he drank it. “You know”, he said pensively between sips, obviously surprised, “as I was walking here, people were giving me funny looks”. It really does seem to come as a shock to Germans that in some countries it is not customary to go by your day inseparable from your beer.
Oddly enough, Germany does not seem to be as plagued with alcoholism as you might expect. Germans start drinking early – the legal age
is was, until recently, 16 – and by the time people in other countries are hesitantly eyeing their first drinks ever, the Germans have already learned their limit, stretched it, rolled it up in a ball and threw it away. And since their drinking culture does not involve that much hard liquor, they seem to be handling it just fine.
This may be the time to mention that I don’t drink. At all (there go your East-European stereotypes). I may have some red wine for birthdays and some champagne for New Year’s Eve, but what I understand under “some” probably differs from your “some” (mine is about three sips. Five, if I’m in a particularly good mood). It’s really more of an alcohol tasting than alcohol drinking. I’ll never forget the shocked expression on the face of the saleswoman at the Christmas market in Berlin when I ordered a mug of Glühwein, took my usual three sips in order to determine that yes, it does taste good, and placed it right back in front of her with the words “It’s delicious, but I don’t drink; I just wanted to know what it tastes like”. She felt so guilty about the fact that I paid 2 Euros for it, that she gave me a mugful of apple cider free of charge.
The cool thing about Germans when it comes to alcohol is, while they may find it bizarre to the point of fictional when people decline a good drink, they seem to have come up with an endless variety of options for non-drinkers to fit in in spite of everything. I, personally, am fascinated with Apfelschorle – fizzy apple juice which, when poured into a glass, looks every bit the same as Weissbier. And they would often serve it in a beer glass as well. I recall one drinking game of “Never have I ever” in which one of the guys was doing his best to get me to drink from my giant 1-liter beer mug for at least four rounds in a row, until I gave him a sly look and declared “You do realize this is Apfelschorle, right?”. His look of surprise mixed with disappointment was a truly great moment.
We had a guided tour at the WDR (West German Broadcasting) station in Düsseldorf this week. It was a rare sunny day in septembery Nordrhein-Westfalen, so we did what any German student would do – bought drinks and sprawled on the grass on the bank of the Rhein, like cats warming up to the sun. Some ten minutes into the drinking, one of the girls looked up between sips at the guy who bought the beer bottles: “You bought alcohol-free beer?!” He stared at the bottle in his hand and looked just as shocked as she was. Perfectly understandable – alkoholfreies Bier seems to have been invented by and for recovered alcoholics. Its taste only barely differs from the average (not particularly great-tasting) alcoholic beer, and the only thing which sets the bottles it is sold in apart from the regular ones is the added “alkolohfreies” word on the label. On the bright side, this gave the observant Muslim girl in the group the chance to finally discover what beer tastes like without upsetting Allah.
And then there’s Oktoberfest. But that’s a story all to its own.