Brown's beer: Olé! Spain has shown me the answer to binge drinking

La chispa is Spanish for “the spark”, a joyous state where alcohol sharpens the mind. It’s an idea we Brits need to liberate us from mindless boozing

This column is a bit of an experiment. 

I’m writing it at midnight, after being out drinking for thirteen hours. In those hours, I have drunk beer, red wine, white wine and several different types of sherry. It’s safe to say I’ve considerably exceeded the government’s recommended daily alcohol guidelines, and am definitely guilty of binge drinking. 

And yet, I’m not drunk. 

Sure, I can feel the effects – I wouldn’t think of driving a car (especially as I have never passed my test) and I wouldn’t attempt to operate heavy machinery (I’ve never been in a situation where I’ve had to – hurray!) but so far, a hundred words in, I seem perfectly capable of writing coherently, give or take a few more typos than usual, which I am perfectly capable of correcting as I go. 

Perhaps it’s also worth adding that this is my third day and night of doing this. And that, less so tonight (because it’s Sunday) but certainly on the last two nights, seemingly everyone in the city has been behaving the same way as me – and yet I’ve not seen a single pissed person while I’ve been here. 

So perhaps you’ve guessed by now that I’m not in London. I’m in a European capital city where beer is drunk like water, where there are multitudes of streets lined with nothing but bars, where even middle-aged women and their mothers can be seen tucking into a cold one before midday, and yet there’s no problem with anti-social behaviour.

Welcome to Madrid.

Spain is one of the biggest beer drinking countries in Europe. The Spanish are also pretty well up there in wine, and its manifold headier relatives. Tramping the streets of the nation’s capital, it seems like every other commercial property is a bar or restaurant.  This would not be sustainable were it not for the fact that everyone – not just kids in their late teens and early twenties, and groups of businessmen on their way home from the office – everyone goes out to bars and drinks. When my wife and I bailed at 1am last night, the place was still in full swing. Tomorrow, Spain has work, and yet still half the bars were doing good business as we came back to our hotel just now.

“The Spanish believe there are, three, not two, states of sobriety”

The Spanish believe there are, three, not two, states of sobriety.  There are sober and drunk – the ones we refer to – and in the middle, there’s la chispa – literally, the spark – which is as different from drunk as it is from sober. It’s the state I describe above. It’s what we might call “tipsy” or “a little bit pissed”, but sees this point as something to be maintained and not exceeded. It’s an inspiring example, easy to achieve while you’re here. That’s why I’m still able to write after thirteen hours’ steady drinking, or as I might erroneously say if I were in London – “thirteen hours on the piss”. 

I’ve not been on the piss at all. I’ve been drinking. The two are not always the same.

Critics of British “binge drinking culture” conveniently ignore the existence of the benign relationship with alcohol that exists here and in many other places. If they were to acknowledge it, they’d have to concede that the negative effects of excessive drinking we see in the UK, exaggerated as they are by our media, are not due to the consumption of alcohol per se, but due to specific local, cultural and societal factors. And it’s much harder to sort those out than simply to say “we must increase the price and/or restrict the availability of alcohol”.

But these cultural and societal differences are what I notice most. 

There are no CCTV cameras in Madrid – at least, none you can see. There’s scant evidence of a health and safety obsession. People seem freer. Treated like adults, they behave like adults.

This may seem a little more abstract, but bear with me – when St Pancras station was renovated, the space where the trains used to be was turned into a shopping mall. When Madrid’s Atocha station – very similar structurally – underwent a similar change, with the trains moved outside the old structure into a new one, the vacant space was tuned into a beautiful botanical garden. 

This is merely the most visible example of how Madrid seems to value people’s happiness over that of corporations. It’s an attitude you see manifested across the city’s commercial properties too, including bars.

In London we seem to value chains (interesting word that) above all else. London developers, landlords and retailers all combine to create an increasingly uniform, corporatized landscape, that starts to feel oppressive even before the CCTV cameras weigh in.

In Madrid, you’ll still find the likes of Starbucks (I’ve seen one – ONE – after walking the city for miles) but the bars are gloriously individual. Some bars close early because they feel like it; others stay open long after business has dried up. But they all look different, all have different specialities, all do basically what the hell they want. And none seem to need bouncers, even on the busiest nights of the week.  

And you know what? Despite Spain’s credit being downgraded, despite the country’s economy being in the toilet, in the capital all you feel is optimism and pride. The bars are busy. People are spending money.

I’m definitely oversimplifying things here (I have been drinking for thirteen hours after all) but I feel pretty sure that in Madrid, both people and businesses feel relatively free. In London, they feel chained. This is partly due to differences in broad political attitudes, and the rights of people versus those of commerce.  But it’s also due to specific commercial factors. 

Human beings crave freedom and individuality. They make us what we are. When we’re allowed to express them freely, we’re happy. When they are suppressed – legally, culturally, commercially – we get angry and unhappy. And that has to manifest itself somehow. Drinking in Madrid compared to drinking in London – or any other British city – suggests that it is this, and not the availability of alcohol (which is much cheaper and more freely available here) that is the key to understanding anti-social drinking.

Pete Brown is one of the UK’s leading beer writers, working across business and consumer press. He’s the author of several best-selling books and blogs at petebrown.blogspot.com. He was recently named joint 37th most influential person in the British pub industry – a claim he strenuously denies.

Readers' comments (1)

  • elenna bach

    According to brand new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study, binge drinking costs all Americans $2 per drink. The cost of the actual drink does not even factor into that number. Reduced productivity, property and medical damages and the cost of imprisonment are just some of the factors. Binge drinking costs each of us $2 per drink. Binge drinking is associated with a profound social harm, economic costs as well as increased disease burden. Binge drinking is more common in males, during adolescence and young adulthood. Most binge drinkers are not familiar with the risks associated with binge drinking. Heavy regular binge drinking is associated with adverse effects on neurologic, cardiac, gastrointestinal, hematologic, immune, musculoskeletal organ systems as well as increasing the risk of alcohol induced psychiatric disorders.

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