The only way to travel in the CIS: Drunk!
Boston Globe July 22, 1999
In Russia, an alcohol revolution brewing
By David Filipov
MOSCOW – Elvira the country singer serves up a refreshing glass of “Chuvash
Bouquet,” known for its apple-like aftertaste. Next door, Igor from the
Volga unleashes heavy barrages of “Stalingrad Strong” to a line of willing
victims. Not far away, the godmother of Russian Beverage is doling out dark,
mysterious quaffs of “Black Prince.” It’s cold. It’s popular. And it’s
not vodka. Beer is on a roll in Russia, and may even be making inroads on
vodka’s once unassailable place as Russians’ favorite libation.
Here at the Great Moscow Beer Festival, it is easy to see why. Russian brewers
are serving notice that they can produce quality beers at reasonable prices
and in dozens of varieties. This may seem surprising in a land where, just
a decade ago, beer was unloaded off the back of an unrefrigerated truck and
sold on the street in unlabeled bottles. Thirsty consumers ignored the sour
taste and the sediment to chug the warm beverage on the spot. “Soviet brewers
knew people would buy it anyway,” said Dr. Valeria Isayeva, laboratory chief
at the Russian Research Institute of Beer Brewing, Non-Alcoholic Beverage
and Wine Producing Industry. “They can’t get away with that now.”
These days, Muscovites still suck down brewskies
on the street – no law against that here – but they are quality brews with
attractive labels. Consumption, which dipped in the early 1990s as people
laid off the bad old stuff, is on the rise. “Beer consumption is definitely
growing,” Isayeva, sort of the godmother of the industry for her institute’s
control of brewing standards, intoned as she poured a schooner of Black Prince,
an intoxicatingly heavy dark beer.
Lidia helping the cause
There is talk that the beer boom is beginning to ferment unrest in the region’s
alcohol hierarchy: Young Russians are shifting from vodka to beer, and a
similar shift to suds is well under way in Poland, another former Communist
country of vodka-lovers. “I now like beer for most social occasions,” said
Artur Vasilyev, sipping a Stalingrad as he tried to explain his hop to hops.
“Vodka is good only when you need to get stinking drunk.”
Russians on average drink only about 20 quarts of beer a year – seven times
less than other Europeans. But since last year’s financial collapse, demand
for locally brewed beer has skyrocketed, and industry analysts say the potential
for growth is enormous. That has lured international beermakers to Russia,
forcing Russian breweries to improve their product. Beer-making technology
has allowed smaller breweries to pop up all over Russia. One example is the
delicious “Chuvash Bouquet” made in a microbrewery in the Volga River city
of Cheboksary, and served by Elvira Timofeyeva, who sang a beer-drinking
song in her native Chuvash tongue.
Powering the brew boom are foreign companies, like
the Scandinavian consortium which in 1992 took over and refurbished a St.
Petersburg brewery and came up with Baltika, the country’s best-selling beer
and the closest thing Russia has to a national brand. An Indian-Belgian company
named SUN Interbrew is challenging Baltika’s dominance. And Turkey’s Efes
brewery and South Africa Breweries, the world’s fourth-largest beer maker,
have each recently opened breweries in Russia.
Guess what I like to drink?
Their brands, like Zolotaya Bochka (Golden Barrel), have scored an instant
hit among younger Russians with catchy ads. The “Bochka” ad shows a close
up of four guys drinking beer on a beach with Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing”
playing in the background; when the camera zooms back, you see that it’s
not a beach they’re sitting on, but a sand-filled boxcar on a moving train.
“We should meet more often,” the announcer says as Hendrix’s guitar goes
Even though these companies are foreign-owned, Russians identify them as
national brands because they are locally produced. The losers are imports,
which appeared in the early 1990s but have been all but muscled out of the
Of course, a thriving beer industry will not help Russia’s significant problems
with male life-expectancy, alcoholism and such. Or maybe it will. “We have
a lot of alcoholics in Russia,” Mayor Yury Luzhkov, himself a teetotaler,
said at the festival’s opening ceremony. “Well, in ancient times, they cured
alcoholism with beer.”