Alcohol consumption in the U.S. has a wide spectrum of implications for different sectors of the population. It has the power to flavor culinary dishes, supplement a traditional toast for celebrations, and provide a light-hearted warmth to social situations. However for the more than 70% of U.S. adults 18 and older who have consumed alcohol in the last month there are risks involved as well. Implementing a minimum legal drinking age on the U.S. population has aided in a rowdy, rambunctious drinking culture that young teens cannot wait to be a part of. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, over 35% of 15-year olds surveyed in a national study reported that they had consumed alcohol at one time in their life. 22% of young people ages 12-20 said that they had consumed alcohol in the last month. The age restriction on young adults intended to prevent alcohol abuse runs the risk of creating a fantastical desire to join an entertaining, yet sometimes out-of-control right of passage as soon as possible.
In the Süd Tirol region of Northern Italy, alcohol consumption takes on a much different face. While Tiroleans certainly love their Weisse Bier (beer) and socializing after hours, alcohol is much more of a cultural experience and a relationship with food than a quest for inebriation. Wine selections are delicately paired with cheeses, dumplings and meats, drunken simultaneously with glasses of water to cleanse the palette between bites of food. At the end of a meal grappa and schnapps (flavored grappas) are enjoyed as digestive aids, rather than a shot of liquor to “get buzzed”. Catherine Messner, the bartender and family owner of the Gampen Alm in the Dolomites region of S. Maddalena, explains that schnapps are flavored with herbs, fruit and roots such as plums, ginger, garlic, spruce and ancienne (a very spicy, bitter root known to have healing properties). Later on our trip we were even able to sample hay schnapps made from pasture grasses of the Vinschgau region (very weird...but very good!) Catherine explained that schnapps are consumed post-meal to help break down the high fat and grain content of typical traditional Süd Tirolean dishes. Specific additives such as garlic and ginger are used as flavorings, but also to help with indigestion, stomach discomfort, headaches, and minor aches and pains.
Wine production of the region is also admired on an unprecedented level as compared to U.S. production. This adds another level of respect and tradition to the conversation of alcohol as an art and a regional pastime. While regions of the U.S. undoubtedly produce delicious and sophisticated wines of the highest, comparable quality- few hold the romantic, historical importance of vineyards in Northern Italy. Some vines scattered across family farms are hundreds of years in the making, having undergone generations of hybridization to achieve the best flavors, most pleasant aromas, and even fungal resistant varieties. Nick de Rachewiltz, farm owner and winemaker at Brunnenburg Castle in Dorf Tirol describes how his lower vineyards act as a genetic bank for grape varieties that were derived decades, even centuries ago. He keeps grape varieties in tact by the root, while each year cross-breeding vines to create new varieties for the most innovative wines and distinct flavors. He has been able to increase the sustainability of his farm by growing fungal resistant and drought tolerant varieties, eliminating the need for intense irrigation and the spraying of herbicides. Winemaking is an art in the Süd Tirol region and to describe it in terms of simply alcohol consumption would be immoral.
Although when involved with food traditions, alcohol consumption can take on a very cultural lense, it can still have negative externalities, especially on the region’s youth. Europe is the heaviest drinking region of the world with some countries scaling consumption levels more than 2.5 times the global average. According to the European Alcohol Policy Alliance, an astounding “43% among 15-16 year old European students reported heavy binge drinking during the past 30 days.” Although this statistic is not specific to the culture of the Süd Tirolean region and includes all of the EU, it exemplifies how all cultures can have their romantic flaws. Even so, throughout my tour of the Süd Tirol region I was
able to enjoy a very traditional and cultural experience regarding alcohol consumption. Pairing wine with the midday meal brought out the rich flavors of sauces and cheeses that I had never been able to recognize before. After-dinner schnapps really did help myself and my travel companions acclimate to the heavy and robust meals we were shocked into digesting the first few days of our trip. And yes, the occasional pint in the late hours of the night was a fun way to socialize with the locals and encourage the conversation. What are some experiences you’ve had with alcohol as a cultural tradition? What are some of your favorite recipes using alcohol? Do you agree or disagree with having a minimum legal drinking age? Let me know in the comments below. Cheers!