(Editor’s note: The Things We Love is a new series celebrating all our favorite aspects of expat life starting with wines and beers. Because maybe Dispatches focuses a little too much on tech and visas. Tell us about the things you love about the expat lifestyle in Europe at: [email protected])
Expat life in Europe … yeah, there are a few frustrations. Canceled trains. Visa issues. Double income taxes for Americans and lots and lots of rules they don’t have back home. BUT, at the end of the day, we remember we really are living the Good Life. So we always celebrate at dinner with a great glass of wine or beer.
Both are a lot less expensive here in the Netherlands than in the United States, for example, due to the European Free Trade Association, lower taxes on alcohol and the fact the best wines and beer come from right here in Europe.
The wine is fine
Let’s start with what Europe does best: wine.
In the States, we and our friends (entrepreneurs, several doctors, a couple of attorneys and one bank president) used to pool our money to get a couple of decent bottles of wine for our throw-in dinners. You can only drink so many bottles of $9.99 Columbia Crest cab.
Problem was, a middlin’ bottle of Stag’s Leap or Grgich started at $50 at Costco, and a bottle of Cain Cellars or a Mondavi or Inglenook reserve was pushing $200. Great French wines – Bordeaux and Margeaux – rarely even made it to our liquor stores.
Where we live in Eindhoven in the southern Netherlands, we entertain our house guests and investors with wines that make them smile that smile of people so pleased their hosts are splurging.
Little do they suspect we bought the wine at Aldi, which is better here in Europe than in the States. Okay, our friend and colleague Nancy Wellendorff Church knows because she lives in Italy. But she’s sworn to secrecy.
(Fun fact: Aldi Nord, based in Essen, owns Trader Joe’s markets in the U.S., which are great … aside from the fact Trader Joe’s sell the worst wine ever, Charles Shaw, better known as Two-Buck Chuck. And you expats who’ve been in Europe too long know there are TWO Aldis, each owned by the families of the two brothers who split after they founded the original. So many rabbit holes, so little time.)
The inventory changes (hey, it’s Aldi!) but Aldi usually has a decent bottle of Amarone ($100 in the U.S.) on the shelf for 10 euros. We’ve gotten Gigondas – a wine that starts at $50 a bottle in the States – for 10 euros on sale at Aldi. If you’re hosting royalty or investors, you can go crazy and shell out 20 euros for top-shelf wines such as chateau-bottled St. Émilion.
Our regular table wines include Valpolicella Ripasso from Lidl and Primitivo Malvasia Puglia (a really tangy Zinfandel) from Aldi, both available all the time for 6 or 7 euros.
Almost every supermarket including Plus and Albert Heijn have very drinkable South African Chardonnays, German Pinot Blancs or Alsatian whites for 3 euros. And before I forget, the Champagne and all sparkling wines are 40-percent less in Europe than in the U.S.
Above all, we love going to vineyards in France and Germany and buying direct – Alsace in France and the Rheinhessen and Mosel regions in Germany are great excuses for weekend getaways… and lovely drives.
Truth is, we don’t even know that much about wines. But you don’t have to in Europe … it’s all good!
The beer is near
We drive three or four hours to get to some of the best wine in Europe, but we can freakin’ bike to the best beer.
We live about two miles from the Belgium/Netherlands border, where there’s one of the world’s great breweries, St. Benedict’s Abby at Achelse Kluis. Here they make Trappist Achel beer, dark or light to your taste.
This is one of 11 remaining Trappist breweries (we’re assuming monks make it … we’ve never actually seen them) in Europe. But the warehouse store they have at the abbey stocks all 11 Trappist beers including Westvleteren, Westmalle, Rochefort, Orval, and Chimay.
And a whole lot more. The most exotic beers we’ve ever seen in one place.
Achelse Kluis is a huge local hangout. When the weather is good (or even marginal) the center court of the abbey is packed with people drinking beer and eating snacks. So, beer is a lifestyle element in Europe. Again, we used to pay $9 per six-pack (on sale) at the beer cave at our local grocery to drink okay European beers including St. Pauli Girl from Germany and Peroni from Italy.
If we wanted the Belgians such as Westmalle, we were looking at about $12 for four.
Here, we can get local beers such as Brand, Grolsch and Heineken on sale for 10 euros per case! When Bavaria is on sale, you can buy a case and a half, or 36, for 10 euros. Or we can spend the same for Jupiler from Belgium. So, we always have beer in the ‘fridge when the neighbors drop in.
Liquor is quicker
Our daughter Lucy came for a visit this summer and when she got off the train from Schiphol, my wife took her bag, opened it and hugged a bottle of Elijah Craig Bourbon she’d brought from our native Kentucky. Then she hugged Lucy.
As we’ve reported, bourbon is wildly popular in the U.S. … but Europe remains a total bourbon desert. So, to our many friends at Beam Suntory and Brown-Forman, this is our cris de coeur – your marketers need to make bourbon a thing in Europe so we have more to choose from than Jim Beam White Label and Four Roses.
Truth is, we don’t drink that much hard spirits, but if that’s what you like, there’s everything from cognac to single-malt Scotch in Europe for about half price compared to the U.S.
Our advice: Choose quality over quantity
Now, if you’re thinking “Wow, these people drink a lot,” we do. We certainly drink more frequently, though probably less volume-wise, than when we lived in the U.S. because beer and wine are better and less expensive here. We have wine and beer with dinner, and we’ll just say it … when friends are here, we occasionally have beer or wine with lunch.
If you’re just moving to Europe, you should know this up front. Europe is a drinking culture. We see people at our local bike cafe downing heavy-duty “doubles” and “triples” – beers with up to 9-percent alcohol – at 10:30 in the morning.
Beer is generally less expensive than soft drinks at restaurants and cafes. Also, people spend a lot more time socializing here, and drinking is – as we all know – the essential social lubricant.
Our advice: Go easy. Some people, including friends and family, cannot drink in moderation. And some can’t drink period. So moving to Europe can turn that from an inconvenience to a real problem.
Oddly, we’ve rarely seen anyone in the Netherlands or Germany rip-roaring drunk in a social setting. We believe Europeans learn to drink moderately at a far earlier age, though binge drinking is pretty common with twenty-somethings.
In the end, we all have to decide for ourselves what “responsible drinking” really is. So our advice is, “When in Europe, always chose quality over quantity.”
The cost of living in the Netherlands is not low, with $7 per gallon gasoline and high rents. But it’s really nice to go to the grocery store and know you can buy fine wines and great beers for a fraction of what we used to spend in the U.S.
Co-CEO of Dispatches Europe. A former military reporter, I'm a serial expat who has lived in France, Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands.