It’s come to our attention that we often reference activities like ‘grabbing a few beers,’ ‘enjoying a sangria in the sunshine,’ etc. and we really hope this doesn’t come across as inappropriate or that we are alcoholics (we promise, we’re not!). On the contrary, the drinking culture here in Spain is simply different than in the US and we want to dive into it a bit so you can better understand why.
In Europe, the legal drinking age is 18, but many people will be offered a glass of wine at their family Sunday lunch before then (Dani was when studying abroad too!). If you grew up in a family where you were not even allowed to taste what the adults around you were drinking, this might seem very strange to you, or even wrong. However, we have seen kids in families trying lighter alcohols like wine or beer at family events at very young ages—think five or six—because they were curious and their parents didn’t mind them having a tiny taste.
Even though it might not be very much, this means that many young people have exposure to alcohol outside of binge drinking with friends. We believe that because alcohol is less off-limits, it seems less secretive and this leads to a healthier relationship with drinking. That doesn’t mean that teenagers don’t drink irresponsibly in Spain, it just means that from what we have seen, it is less destructive and more casual than what we saw back home.
What we mean by ‘casual’ is that people can reasonably have a drink or two everyday―especially if they go out for food―and this is not viewed as questionable judgement. It’s also (generally) appropriate for colleagues to get drinks directly after work during the week, even going with their bosses too. People aren’t getting rip-roaring drunk on these occasions so it’s not seen as unprofessional, it’s just a social opportunity and a time to decompress from whatever is going on at work or home.
In addition, just like in the adult world in the States, responsible drinking is often tied to social events. Language schools often have a copa de bienvenido (“welcome drink”) event in which sangria or other alcoholic beverages are provided to welcome new students and allow them to mix with older ones. Intercambios tend to take place in bars where tapas and alcohol are available. We’ve even had shots of holiday liqueur with bosses and co-workers (in the office!) to celebrate the last day before Christmas break―and nobody else found that strange.
Eating While Drinking
One last thing we would like to mention is how food and alcohol are more linked in Spain than we saw growing up. There is a strong tie between eating and having a social drink because most of the time people go out, they will have something to snack on. This won’t look the same in all places because you will find tapas more in the south, such as in Granada, and pintxos in Bilbao, and many different versions around Spain.
Sometimes you will have to pay for these small snacks and sometimes they will already be included in the price of the drink. However, most people will not just drink alcohol without something to eat next to them unless it is after eating hours (around 11 or 12 pm) and even then, depending on what kind of bar you go to, you might still get some little sweet gummies to snack on.
We are not saying that everyone here drinks all the time (nor that you have to), but we simply want you to know why we may mention it so casually. And why your study abroad program coordinators will most likely do so as well. They’re not condoning under-aged drinking by sharing the best places to go out or explaining the different ways to order a beer. The reality is that everyone above the age of 18 is legally allowed to consume alcohol in Spain so there’s no stigma or taboo about the topic.
All of this means that the social act of drinking is more sustainable in the sense that you are less likely to overdo on alcohol because you are regularly putting food into your stomach as well. This can help you find the balance between regular drinks out with friends and trying to make sure that you are somewhat healthy with your habits, even if it can feel like you are out all the time with your friends and family back home.