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Beer, wine, coffee or tea?

Marc von Lüpke /aiJune 14, 2013

A drink is more than just a drink - it's also culture, history and tradition.So why do Germans pick wine over beer? And how come beer used to be healthier than water? DW dips its straw into Germany's favorite beverages.

A beer garden
Image: Fotolia/Kzenon

When you walk into a German bar or restaurant, you'll usually find an abundance of beverage choices. Beer, wine, hot drinks, cold drinks… whatever you fancy.

Rewind a few thousand years and the story was quite different. There was just water. It wasn't until around 10,000 BC that people created the first man-made drink: beer. Since that time, the low-alcoholic beverage has become a global success story.

Also from a medical point of view, beer was important back in the days when hygiene was a constant issue. Hildegard of Bingen, a famous Benedictine abbess from the 11th century and an expert on illness and remedies, had one piece of advice in store: "Drink beer!"

The local brew

Adults as well as children dutifully followed her guidance. Up until the 20th century, water was often contaminated and not safe to drink, so across Europe beer was a good choice to stay healthy. Even more so, in the 19th century, factory owners encouraged their hard-working staff in mines and steel plants to drink beer. The drink was rich in calories, and it was also seen as an alternative to the schnapps that the men would otherwise often overindulge in.

Poets and philosophers also praised - and enjoyed - a pint or two. "I always drink a glass of lager with my dinner," Nobel Prize laureate Thomas Mann admitted shamelessly. For a long time, Germany had a reputation for being the leading beer nation in the world - though they've since had to give up their top spot as the planet's number one beer consumers.

Beer glasses
Once upon a time, beer was one of the healthiest drinks you could get your hands onImage: picture-alliance/Frank May

On average, Germans drink about 100 liters (over 26 gallons) of beer a year - a lot less than the Czechs, who lead the table with a whopping 150 liters. "Where people brew beer, that's a good place to live!" is an old Czech saying.

In Germany, brewing beer is also an ingrained part of the culture. Some 1,300 breweries produce more than 5,000 brands - more than in any other country in the world. And more and more Germans tend to prefer getting their booze from local small breweries.

A true wine lover

In the 16th century, church reformer Martin Luther, however, was more in favor of wine. "Beer is man-made, but wine comes from God," the former monk declared.

While many monasteries brewed beer, plenty of them also grew wine. Many of Germany's oldest and best wine regions date back to monks pioneering the work. The first to bring the sweet nectar to Germany, though, were the Romans who brought the relevant skills across the Alps to make their stay in cold, barbaric Germania somewhat more agreeable.

Wine queen Annika Strebel
Wine-adoring Germans even crown an annual "wine queen"Image: picture alliance/Imagno

Also in the Middle Ages, wine proved to be very popular. Only the well-off could afford good wine though; the majority could only get their hands on cheap stuff, sometimes even mixed with vinegar. This in fact might be the reason why even today people drink less wine than beer - "only" 20 liters a year on average.

But maybe that's a good thing as scientists recently found out that the alcohol in wine is actually more harmful to the brain that that in beer. In light of those findings, it's surprising that wine is often the beverage of choice among artists and intellectuals.

Journalist and writer Kurt Tucholsky famously lamented in the 1920s that "unfortunately, you can't caress wine."

Coffee, coffee, coffee

Not surprisingly, neither wine nor beer is the drink of choice in the morning. Tea and coffee are preferred. Those, too, have been the subject of heated debate and until not too long ago only rich people could afford the drinks. "I need to have coffee, coffee; if you want to give me a treat - pour me a cup of coffee," Johann Sebastian Bach wrote in 1732.

It was around that time that the first coffee houses sprung up in Europe, where traders and the wealthy and educated met to have a coffee and discuss the matters of the day. Proper coffee was imported from the Arab world; poor people had to drink fake coffee made from malt or chicory.

Smiley face in a cup of coffee
While for the Brits it's got to be tea, the Germans would rather go for a hot coffeeImage: Fotolia

With tea it was the same story: For a long time it was the privilege of the well-off. It wasn't until tea and coffee prices plummeted in the early 19th century that the working class was also able to afford the beverage. The prices went down because coffee and tea became cheaper to produce when slave labor was introduced in Europe's colonies.

An expression of national identity

Tea and coffee houses are still popular places to hang out. And the hot drink you go for has almost become a question of national identity: While in Britain it is undoubtedly tea, in Germany coffee has the upper hand. On average, Germans drink 150 liters of coffee per year - more than beer, wine or mineral.

So the next time you sit down in a bar, your decision what to order might - whether you know it or not - not just be based on personal preference, but also on the cultural and historical context of each of those tempting beverages listed on the menu.