Drink Like a Russian: Beer

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Bitter Siberian winters.  The unforgiving Taiga.  Oppressive Czarist regimes.  Oppressive Communist regimes.  Oppressive current regimes.  The Cold War.  The “Miracle on Ice.”  Rocky IV.  Excuses for Russians to drink are never in short supply and, whether they’re spirits, beer, or wine, alcoholic options are equally abundant.  As the Sochi Winter Olympics near, we at Denver off the Wagon, in the interest of international camaraderie, encourage you to become more worldly, to immerse yourself in foreign cultures.  Thus, from opening ceremonies to closing ceremonies, we hope you’ll celebrate like the host country and drink like a Russian.  Za vas!       

When it comes to Russian libations, nothing is more popular than vodka.  Nonetheless, beer, Russia’s second favorite alcoholic drink, claims an impressive share of the market.  In fact, with 91 million hectoliters (almost 3.5 million gallons) of beer produced annually over 250 breweries, Russia boasts the world’s fourth largest beer industry.

Baltika, the country’s largest brewery and Europe’s best-selling beer brand, has only been in operation since 1990; compared to the veteran brewers of Germany, Belgium, and the U.K., Baltika is a mere infant.  Even relatively young American craft breweries hold seniority over it (Boulder Beer est. 1979, Sierra Nevada est. 1980, Sam Adams est. 1984…etc.).  Of course, Baltika wasn’t the first Russian brewery; there were others before it but most either went out of business or were gobbled up by larger corporations when the Iron Curtain fell and the free market and globalization inundated the former Soviet Union (Baltika itself is owned by the Carlsberg Group).  Indeed, Russia had a healthy brewing culture for much of recent history but Western Europe and America didn’t know about it due to the secrecy that defined the Cold War era.

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Luckily, some of Russia’s original breweries managed to survive (although not always with the same ownership).  For example, the nation’s two oldest breweries, Stepan Razin Brewery (est. 1795 and wholly Russian-owned) and Vena Brewery (est. 1872, sold to Stepan Razin in 1889, broke away from Stepan Razin in 1989, bought by the Carlsberg Group who split ownership with Baltic Beverages Holding in 1999), still brew in St. Petersburg.  In the early days of Russian beer, brewers emulated the dark beer styles of England, producing brown ales, porters, and stouts—but with a twist: due to Russia’s general chilliness, most beers, including ales, were cold fermented as if they were lagers.  That practice still continues at some of Russia’s more traditional breweries.

Beer isn’t the stiffest drink a Russian can order but its popularity exemplifies the country’s nonchalant attitude towards alcohol.  Czar Peter the Great, for instance, decreed that all hospitals and navies ought to be well-supplied with beer and, nowadays, beer is popular with Russian women because it’s believed to be beneficial during and after pregnancy.  Heck, Russia is so blasé about booze that, up until January, 2013, anything under 10% ABV (i.e. most beer) wasn’t even considered alcohol—it was considered a “foodstuff.”  Before then, beer was bought off the street, at railway stops, at gas stations, and anywhere else groceries and snacks are purchased.  Likewise, beer could be enjoyed any place other “non-alcoholic” drinks were acceptable.  The park?  The bus?  The street corner?  All these places were once impromptu beer gardens.  However, to stem alcohol abuse, former President Dmitry Medvedev signed into law the new measures, limited when and where beer could be sold and drank and, today, beer is officially recognized as an alcoholic drink and is regulated the same as vodka.

As popular as beer is in Russia, the nation didn’t originate any famous beer styles.  Sure, there’s the Russian imperial stout but that’s actually an English beer brewed for Russians, not a Russian creation in and of itself.  The only exception is kvass (or kvas), Russian for “leaven,” and it’s a big exception.  Why?  This beverage, fermented from rye bread, usually comes in at a whopping 0.5 to 2.5% ABV (and the 2.5% is really pushing the boundaries of the style).  As was already mentioned, regular beer wasn’t considered alcoholic until recently so you know nobody makes a fuss over kvass.  In Russia, kvass is viewed as a children’s drink; there are even kvass carts—giant barrels on wheels—that roam neighborhoods much the way America has ice cream trucks.  Unfortunately, also like American ice cream trucks, the kvass vendors are nostalgic remnants from a bygone era, not as commonplace as they once were.

Kvass dates back at least to 989 AD when Prince Vladimir was baptized and commanded that, in celebration, food, honey, and kvass would be distributed to his subjects.  A drink whose national ties are as strong as vodka’s, traditional kvass comes in many different flavors as it’s typically spiked with any number of ingredients including fruits and berries, raisins, herbs, birch sap, honey, or any other random consumable.  The base flavor for traditional kvass, though, is tangy from the rye bread and sour from the lactobacillus yeast.

Kvass is said to have many health benefits.  For one, when the Russian water supply was rife with bacteria (not terribly long ago, actually), the acidity of kvass killed the germs, making it a safer alternative to water.  It’s also high in vitamin B and, if brewed with lemon, helps prevent scurvy.

Today, kvass is still very popular in Russia but commercialized versions (Coca-Cola and Pepsi both produce a kvass cola) are pushing traditional kvasses into obscurity.  Corporate kvasses, while more common, are dead—they aren’t bottled with live yeast—and the customary tangy, sour twang is hidden under heaps of sugar.  “Craft kvass” is still around (mostly in the kitchens of Russian grandmothers who homebrew it in a manner adhering to custom) but it’s becoming a rarity.

So, how can you drink like a Russian in Colorado?  Well, if you’re looking for traditional kvass, you’re out of luck; it’s not a very popular style for American brewers and, even if you have a Russian friend who would ship you a bottle, traditional kvass goes bad within five to ten days—you better get that stuff overnighted!  There is a deli in Brooklyn known as The Gefilteria that makes beet kvass and Beaver Brewing Company, a nanobrewery in Pennsylvania, literally wrote the book on kvass but neither is conveniently located to the Colorado drinker.  Baltika, on the other hand, may not be a traditional Russian beer but it’s readily available in several Denver-area stores, bars, and restaurants (click here to see a full listing).  If you want Russian suds to toast the Sochi Olympics, Baltika is the way to go.

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About Chris Bruns


Chris Bruns is a self-professed beer geek living in Denver. Chris spends much of his time brewing beer at home with friends and family, attempting to visit every brewery in Colorado, attending special beer events and festivals, purchasing and assessing the latest releases from local breweries, and blogging about his adventures in the world of craft beer. He is also the Denver Craft Beer Examiner on Examiner.com. Contact Chris by e-mail at chrisdbruns@gmail.com or through his blog at www.beerincolorado.blogspot.com.