Beer Drinking and What It Says About China’s Economy

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The average Chinese adult drank about a half a bottle of beer in 1961, less than the average resident of Iran. By 1991, consumption topped 27 bottles a year, but still lagged behind 117 other nations, according to the World Health Organization.

By 2007, the Chinese were drinking almost 103 beers per adult a year. While that’s still considerably less per capita than in beer gardens like the Czech Republic (where the average adult drinks about 471 beers a year) it’s enough to make China by far the world’s largest market for beer.

That story can be repeated for any number of consumer goods, of course. But what’s interesting about beer is that the trend is not likely to last. A paper by two economists at the University of Leuven, in beer-loving Belgium, finds that people drink more beer as their incomes rise, until they make about $22,000 a year.

Then they start drinking less beer.

The paper, brought to my attention by the Reuters blogger Felix Salmon, doesn’t offer much in the way of explanations, but perhaps the most obvious one is something many Americans personally experience in their 20s. As you start making more money, and assuming more responsibility, there is less opportunity to drink -– and the potential consequences become more costly.

People also start drinking more wine.

The paper notes that patterns of alcohol consumption are converging, diminishing the long-standing, much-caricatured division of Europe into a wine-drinking south and a beer-drinking north. (The history of these divisions is well-told in the delightful book “A History of the World In Six Glasses.”)

“Increased openness to trade and globalization has contributed to a convergence in alcohol consumption patterns across countries,” write the authors, Liesbeth Colen and Johan Swinnen. Wine drinking increased in places like Germany and Belgium, while beer drinking spiked in Greece and Spain. (France, however, is sitting out the trend.)

This suggests, notes Mr. Salmon, that the Chinese inevitably will start drinking more wine. Much the same thing appears to be happening in Brazil, Russia and other emerging markets. But not in India, where the major religions frown on drinking alcohol, and neither beer nor wine is heavily consumed.