Last update on March 11, 2019

Drowning yourself in the national beverage is not a particularly clever way to make new friends, but learning about the local drinking habits can be a very useful tool for expats who want to blend in.

When IT professional Dave from England was assigned to his company’s Belgian office for three months, he thought of it as a holiday but he certainly did not intend to make a big splash.

So arriving the day before he was due to start, he sought out some English mates who were based in the city. They went on a pub-crawl to sample as many local brews as possible. Many hours, beers and a few joints later, Dave awoke, still in the previous day’s clothes, with an almighty hangover and feeling distinctly queasy. Realising he was late for his first day of work. He staggered out of bed and made his unsteady way to the office.

When he got there, his new Belgian colleagues were already sitting around a circle, eagerly discussing the big project they were all to work on. Dave stumbled in, hoping no one would notice his awful appearance. Despite feeling very ill, he took a seat in the circle and tried to pretend he was fully involved in the discussion.

Suddenly he felt he was about to retch. He tried to fight it but to no avail. He opened his mouth to excuse himself from the meeting but instead a mighty stream of projectile vomit covered his startled colleagues. Needless to say he didn’t make any close friends in the office during his placement there.

Strong stuff in Belgium

Dave had failed to realise that some Belgium beers pack a mighty punch and that the British Kamikaze approach to boozing is relatively unusual in the country.

“There is a drinking culture in Belgium but people here tend to drink at a steadier pace – there’s not the rapid dash that we’ve had traditionally in Britain to get the drinks in before closing time,” another expat observes.

“Generally, you don’t see people lying drunk in the streets as you might in some British cities.”

Egg cup-size glasses in the Netherlands

Similarly, the Dutch are not ‘speed drinkers’, says another British expat Allan. “Often, British, Irish and US expats will go to the pub on Friday after work with one goal in mind. To get smashed. The Dutch don’t think like that. They might have one or two glasses of beer but then they will announce they are leaving because they are going on a 50 km cycle with friends first thing on Saturday morning. We expats, on the other hand, probably won’t get out of bed on Saturday until the sun has gone down.”

And what is the story with the egg cup-size glasses used on the continent to serve beer. They are so small. You are supposed to get a glass with no more that two fingers of head but often half the glass consists of foam and dissipates before you carry it from the bar back to your table.

“One gulp and the glass is nearly empty. So, you are obliged to order another straight away.” moans Allan. Perhaps this helps to explain the success of Irish bars across the continent. While Ireland – unlike Britain – has embraced the euro and kilometres, it has clung stubbornly to the pint. “I have drunk more Guinness here in the last 12 months than I did in Britain in 12 years. At least with the pint, you don’t have to keep running to the bar for a top up.”

Dutch city centre bars generally stay open as long as there are customers, sometimes to 4am. But suburban pubs shut down for the night by 2am at the latest.

Drinking less in France

Traditionally, the French have taken the ‘early but often’ approach to alcohol rather than concerning themselves with the volume of the glass.

Kitty from Michigan has been a regular feature in bars across France for over 20 years. She says some workers are known to pop into the local for a pastis before going to work in the morning.

Lunch between 12-2 p.m. starts with whiskey or liquor. A nice wine with the meal and a brandy or cognac to finish up. “People would be drunk by the end of the day. This is the old fashioned France. Most people don’t have time anymore in the big cities and people are drinking less these days,” Kitty laments.

The French, she says, don’t go to the pub as often as the drinks are too expensive. Pubs close at about 10pm.

Coffee first in Germany

Irish-expat Jean spent a few years in Germany and learned that the key to integrating and to getting to know the locals was to adapt to their drinking pace. “Getting blotto by midday can be fun but many Germans didn’t really appreciate that. It is difficult enough to connect with them at the best of times, but if you are lying under the table, forget it,” she says.

Jean’s advice is go for coffee with them first. You can always introduces them to the local Irish bar later.