Russia, July 22, 1999
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 ballistic.
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 market.
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."