Russia develops a taste for craft beer

In the land of vodka, a small but highly inventive craft beer movement is awakening  /// by 

Foto: istockphoto.com/ClaudeMic

In Russia, the craft beer movement is comparatively small and very young, but no less inventive for that. In the run-up to the Beviale Moscow, we talked to the pioneers of craft brewing about the craft beer scene in Russia.

From home brewer to craft beer revolutionary

Eugene Tolstov is an IT specialist who moved around a lot in Europe during his work for a German bank. In the UK in the “noughties,” he witnessed the country’s flourishing craft beer movement. Back in his home country, he found the availability and choice of beer at that time to be rather poor. Tolstov dreamed of having his own brewery so he could show his compatriots the wide variety of beers possible apart from the lagers that were commercially available. But first of all, he tried out home brewing in his own kitchen. In 2013 a university friend approached him with the idea of establishing their own company to offer something “genuine” that would make people happy. The idea of a brewery quickly emerged, putting Tolstov in the position of turning his hobby into a career. In that very same year the friends brewed their first beer, the “Victory Art Brew.” At that time they were still “gypsy brewers,” in other words, making use of an established brewery as guest brewers. But as early as spring 2014 they were able to move into their own premises.

Tolstov smiles as he relates their first attempts to sell their beer: “Hardly anybody wanted to take up our offer of trying out an oatmeal stout and putting it on their menu. One person we approached even said that Russian beer was rubbish and his patrons would never drink anything like that.” However, the team that created Victory Art Brew didn’t let that discourage them. Ultimately they found beer enthusiasts like themselves who were prepared to include the new kind of beer in their offering. Enthusiasm for the beer was so great that in the summer of 2014 the first “Craft Beer Bar” opened in the centre of Moscow. By the end of the year there were ten such establishments. Today more and more brewers are trying their hand at the craft beer scene. Eugene Tolstov recalls: “In 2015 it felt as if a new beer bar was opening every week, and the number of beer presentations simply exploded. There were days when I was invited to four beer presentations at four different locations.”

Especially adventurous in brewing and drinking

One craft beer business that was established in the Russian capital by Anton Ermakov in the summer of 2015 is Бутылка, Кружка и Котел– “Bottle, jug and kettle.” The bottle symbolises the extensive range of craft beers available to take away in bottles, the jug stands for the bar and the kettle is a symbol of home brewing. Theoretical and practical instruction in the latter is provided in seminars at the small in-house microbrewery. “It’s incredibly exciting to see how the craft beer revolution is developing in Russia and also to be a part of it,” says Ermakov. He believes that Russians are especially quick to discover special beer styles. “What took decades in the USA and at least a good few years in Europe we’re doing at high speed. Consumers are prepared to try everything – from strongly hopped beers to imperial interpretations or sour beers. Russian brewers are doing the rounds of beer festivals and trade fairs worldwide to find out about innovations and then try them out for themselves.”

According to Ermakov, craft beer accounts for 1-2% of national beer consumption. “Of course, that’s not a lot. But in the capital as well as other cities in Russia and rural areas, more and more Russians are discovering the variety of flavours that beer can offer and are really falling in love with them.”

This view is shared by Igor Lehnovich, the operator of mirbeer.ru, an unusual online shop for the Russian beer sector. As well as selling international craft beer brands and artisan beers from Russia, Mirbeer helps people get into home brewing by supplying the right kind of brewing equipment and ingredients. “Most craft brewers in Russia started off with home brews. Due to the growing demand, they are increasingly travelling the country as gypsy brewers and brewing in collaboration with others, or are in the process of setting up their own breweries,” says Lehnov.

Recession as an opportunity for artisan beer

But why are Russians all of a sudden enjoying craft beers, preferably combined with a hearty meal in a fashionable pub? The answer is surprising. For many people, inflation and the collapse of the rouble have made imported beer unaffordable, so locally brewed beers are impressing both the taste buds and the wallets of Russian consumers.

Both Eugene Tolstov and Igor Lehnovich confirm that Indian Pale Ales in particular, as well as stouts, have been a hit with Russian beer drinkers. “This beer revolution came about because beer fans have recognised that we Russians are actually open to different types of beer, and that we’re also capable of brewing them,” says Tolstov. One of the projects that Lehnovich is working on is to resurrect an old Russian brewing technique, the “Pozhignoe,” which is comparable to ‘‘stein beer” and involves boiling the wort by adding heated rocks during the brewing process. This brewing method was used in earlier times, predominantly in Russia’s villages.

As far as the quality of most Russian beers is concerned, all three men are convinced that it can absolutely match that of European products. “I’ve tried Russian beers and was impressed by the quality,” says Anton Ermakov. “At international festivals there is a lot of interest in beers from here. But of course there is still room to grow when you consider how young the scene is, and that a lot of things are still being tried out.”

However, one challenge for the young craft beer scene in Russia is the difficult legislative environment. “In the first place, it’s fairly difficult for brewers to even sell beer they’ve brewed themselves. The next hurdle comes if they want to offer a new kind of beer. And the biggest challenge all of is to open your own brewery,” says Lehnovich. “However, the new generation of brewers is very enthusiastic and keen to try out new things.”

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