Drinking alcohol is most commonly a social activity, and the Social Issues Research Centre in Amsterdam studied many social roles that anthropology can teach us about the activity. Different types of drinks are symbolic for different types of situations. A comparison is given of Champagne and beer, which in many western cultures are used in relation to a type of celebration and in times of relaxing company, respectively.
The largest cultural aspect of alcohol consumption is the type of beverage chosen to drink. According to the Research Center, “Alcohol is a symbolic vehicle for identifying, describing, constructing and manipulating cultural systems… rarely a matter of personal taste.” Drink choice indicates a person’s origin or affiliation, social status and gender. College students in America have strong affiliation as a group with cheap alcohol and beer specifically. But affiliation can also be with an origin of production such as Heineken beer with Holland and tequila with Mexico. An expensive bottle of wine bought to drink with dinner will present a higher social status than a box of wine. In Poland, consumption of imported wines is a symbol for high status, as “native beers and vodkas are ‘ordinary’ or working-class.” Also, there are beverage choices that indicate masculinity and femininity in a society, and those related to femininity are assumed to be less alcoholic and sweeter than a “masculine” glass of dark beer. The gender-based classification of drinks occurs even in cultures such as the Lele of Zaire, which only consume a single type of alcohol. Women drink a sweeter and weaker version of Mana ma piya, while men drink Mana ma kobo; a stonger version of the same beverage.
Anthropology has taught us that because consuming alcohol is such a social task, there are many more factors that determine choice than simply personal preference. Cultural and societal roles differentiate between countries, but what they all have in common is that there are always symbols for alcoholic consumption, and expectations that match each drink chosen to consume.