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Archive for the ‘European Union’ Category

T-shirt in Glasgow

When I look at the map, I have covered a fair number of countries since I started blogging. 23, to be exact, and that means 23 countries I have visited in this three year period.

Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Latvia, Ireland, Scotland, England (yes, I count England, even if they don’t have their own parliament!), Wales, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Greece, Hungary and Cyprus.

Some of them, admittedly, for only a brief stay, but others where I have been able to go deeper into the beery heart of the nation.

Should I pick six of them as beer destinations?

Denmark, the Czech Republic, Germany, Scotland, England, Belgium and the Netherlands. Sorry, that’s seven. But they would make a mighty fine tour of Europe.

A general word of advice is to go for the brewpubs. The beer is fresher, the barmen know more about what they sell, there is more enthusiasm. I’ll give you my top ten some time.

Croatia is coming up, if I’m lucky with a side trip to Slovenia, but I don’t think they will make the core list.

There are still glaring white spots on my map of Europe, including Poland, Portugal and Russia. But there are also other continents to consider….

Beer in Sofia

Beer in Sofia

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The inventiveness of merchants and governments across Europe has led to many strange price differences between neighbouring countries. Sugar, petrol, vodka, wine – the list is endless. The European Union has led to some harmonisation, but you still have lots of Danes going to Germany to shop, not to mention Brits going across to France.

National governments have some tough decisions to make. Finland has lowered the prices of hard liquor to avoid to much border trade with Estonia and Russia. The result is a paradise for hard drinkers, and even a casual observer can see the damages.

I spent a few years of my life in the employ of the Royal Ministry of Foreign Affairs, trying to convince the Norwegian electorate that the Maastricht Treatywas Good For Them. As everyone knows, they were not amused, and massive oil wealth has meant that we can buy ourselves out of any problems arising from being on the outside.

Well, there is more to it than that, obviously. To be able to sell our salmon and oil, we have to open our markets for goods and services from the EU, and are quite content to do that. We could not possibly build our roads and hospitals without hired hands from Poland and the Baltic republics. We could not have our overpriced pint of Carlsberg lager without the Swedish waiters to serve them.

We adopt EU legislation, too, in fact we are more eager than most member states. We Nordics have a very Lutheran feeling of obligation towards legal committment, and this philosophy is prevailent in the government as well. Even parties who are extremely against European integration when they are in opposition accept the sitaution when they occupy the ministries.

But still. We are not a part of the EU agricultural policy, and we do not have open borders when it comes to alcohol, either. At the same time the border between Sweden and Norway is as open as the one between, say, Belgium and the Netherlands. People commute by road, rail and plane. Norwegians snap up holiday homes in Sweden. Goods travel freely across the border based on a trust in that serious businesses keep their papers in orders, and the customs officers process papers and conduct only spot checks.

This has led to the establishment of a number of shopping centres on the Swedish side. About one million people live within a driving distance of about an hour and a half. A significant number of those live even closer, and they are happy to buy their groceries at a 20-30% discount.

The most interesting shopping centres are the ones including a branch of the government alcohol stores Systembolaget, but when I visited last week, we did not have time for seeking out one of them, instead going for one of the stores right across the border.

The main purpose of our visit was to buy sweets for an birthday, and the size of the confectionery shop was overwhelming. We bought far more than we ought to, before descending on the supermarket next door.

One aspect of Swedish alcohol policy makes them the odd man out. Only beer with an alcohol content below 3,5% can be sold in supermarkets. This has, naturally, led to a vast range of beers balancing on that threshold. With a population of close to ten million, Sweden is an interesting market. This has mad many of the breweries across Europe to make  watered downspecial versions of their beers solely for Sweden. You have English bottled bitters, Bavarian hefeweissen, Austrian and Dutch lagers – even a low alcohol beer brewed by Borg, a Norwegian brewery just across the border who worry about their market escaping.

So, who are profiting on this boom in the border trade? Sure, a few Swedish farmers have had a bonanza. But most of the money goes back again. The shopping centres and supermarkets are actually owned and run by Norwegian companies.

And you don’t need to worry about the language problem. (Not that the difference is big). The cashier would be Norwegian as well, driving a few kilometers across to work.

The beer? thin and watery, though a few of them are in fact quite decent. You’ll need a shot of something stronger on the side to get a buzz, though. But these are fine lawnmower beers. At half the price of their full strength brethren on the other side of the border.

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Traceability is a buzz word for everything connected with food in Europe and, I believe, globally.  There are many reasons for this: 

  • Public and animal health,
  • Consumer confidence in food,
  • Varying degrees of honesty in the market place
  • Marketing opportunities (slow food, local food, spinning stories about the farmer or the brewer)
  • Governments and EU bodies’ wish to enforce legislation/taxation/control subsidies.

According to a report in Beverage Daily, the European Union has recently announced proposals for a new electronic system (EMCS) for manufacturers of products requiring excise duties. 

The measures can reduce losses and fraud during the transportation of products like alcoholic beverages, and simplify the current system of excise charges for beer.

Rodolphe de Looz-Corswarem, secretary general for the Brewers of Europe, welcomed the system, which he believes can simplify the administrative process for manufacturers and encourage greater trade of national beers in the bloc.
“We hope that Member States will finally enable consumers to benefit from the internal market for goods such as beer and approve the Commission proposal, where beer acquired for personal consumption is subject to taxes from the country of purchase,” he stated.  “In today’s world of online shopping, consumers in Europe should not be restricted as to where they order their favourite beer.”

If there is one thing that makes me wary, it is industry associations claiming to speak for the consumers….

On the other hand, beer drinkers across Europe will welcome measures making it easier to find out where their beers really come from. It will also make it easier for small scale brewers to show what is real craft beer and what is macro brewers sailing under a false flag.

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The Norwegian Royal Ministry of Health and Care Services has, after dragging its feet for some time, sent a letter to the EFTA Surveillance Authority informing them that the ban on private import of alcohol should be repealed and replaced by an alternative control system. The Norwegian Government will therefore immediately initiate work on drafting alternative control mechanisms and an amendment of the legislation on private import of alcoholic beverages.

This amendment will have to be passed in Parliament, and the system is such that it will take a year or so to get the issue through the system. With a majority government, though, this should pass without much fuzz. I expect some whimpering from the Christian Democrats, but that’s about it.

Tonight we raise our glasses of (imported) beer to the European Court and the EFTA Surveillance Authority.

Belgian beer bottles

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