Russia’s craft beer revolution: ‘The last time people stood in line for beer was in the Soviet Union’

From Moscow and St Petersburg to the regions, a new generation of beer geeks is brewing a challenge to vodka-loving Russias deadly drinking culture

It is a drizzly Monday night, but Craft rePUBlic is boisterous with the chatter of brewers and beer aficionados. Those just walking in are greeted with a half pint of Red Nelson, a saison beer made with hibiscus tea and orange peel by local brewer Alexei Sazonov, who is celebrating his birthday at the craft beer bar.

Sazonov works at Bottle Share, one of a growing number of microbreweries driving what has been dubbed the craft revolution here, but he created Red Nelson at home under his nickname, Big Hedgehog. Sazonov says of the major Russian beer brands, whose bland lagers dominate store shelves and taps: They boil it quickly, ferment it quickly and sell it quickly. A microbrewer brews beer he wants to drink himself.

Russia, of course, is known for vodka rather than beer, and a popular saying holds that beer without vodka is throwing money to the wind. According to the latest World Health Organisation data from 2010, 51% of alcohol consumed in Russia was spirits and only 38% was beer. This vodka culture has had deadly consequences for Russian men, whose average life expectancy of just 64 years lags behind that in European countries due mainly to heavy drinking and tobacco use.

Now a new generation of beer geeks, as they dub themselves, is working to change Russians approach to beer and to drinking in general. With a focus on savouring the taste rather than drinking to get drunk, at least two dozen craft bars have opened in Moscow since the summer of 2014, serving Russian and foreign microbrews. Theyre getting so numerous that the cultural magazine Afisha declared in August that it was refusing to write reviews of the craft beer bars that are opening every week.

Few expect beer to displace vodka as the national drink, especially after the government reduced the minimum price of the spirit in 2015 amid economic troubles. But theres a long tradition of homebrewing in Russia, and the growth potential of craft beer is huge thanks to its relative affordablity; local craft brews typically sell for between 200 and 300 roubles (2-3) a pint. Moreover, its easy to start a craft bar: no liquor licence is required if an establishment serves only beer, and startup costs are minimal, since a large staff, kitchen and lavish interiors arent typically necessary. As a result, craft bars are spreading from Moscow and St Petersburg to the regions.

Many trace the start of the trend, ironically enough, to Russias largest beermaker, Baltika in St Petersburg, which began brewing experimental batches with the foreign craft breweries BrewDog, Mikkeller and Jacobsen in 2010. Two Baltika employees, along with a third friend, began making their own beer under the name AF Brew in 2012. (The AF stands for anti-factory.) It has since become one of Russias most celebrated craft breweries, along with Saldens in Tula, Jaws in Yekaterinburg, Bakunin in St Petersburg and Victory Art Brew in Moscow.

At the time, most bar owners didnt even know what craft beer was. We said it was brewed in Russia and people literally laughed at us, says Denis Kovalyov of Victory Art Brew. Good beer cant be made in Russia, they said. But when a friends bar finally bought two tuns of Victorys celebration stout, it sold out in two weeks, rather than the two months they had expected.

Back then, the closest thing Moscow had to a dedicated craft bar was GlavPivMag, a stand in a fish market that sold unusual beers. Finally, in the summer of 2014, the craft bars Beermarket and All Your Friends opened near Moscows famous Tverskaya Street, soon to be joined by Craft rePUBlic. They offered a low-key atmosphere, with no televisions or table service; like a speakeasy, All Your Friends is accessible only through a souvenir shop. The first time GlavPivMag owner Yevgeny Fedotov ordered in craft beer, two kegs of AF Brews Hop and Surf American Pale Ale, in 2013, it sparked a run on the store rarely seen since the times of Soviet-era deficits. I had guys standing in line, saying the last time they stood in line for beer was years ago in the Soviet Union, he says.

This wasnt always the land of bland lagers: for years, court breweries made beer for the tsars, and English ales and porters were reportedly popular with Catherine the Great. Russian imperial stout is believed to have been developed when British beermakers began adding extra alcohol to preserve export ales on their long voyage to her court. But when the Bolsheviks came to power, they kicked out Belgian and British ale brewers and replaced them with lager makers from friendlier countries like Germany and Czechoslovakia, says Fedotov.

Many are now trying to resurrect Russias brewing traditions. While microbreweries here typically work with American hops and German malt, some are beginning to develop local flavours, like Saldens Pryanik Ale meant to mimic a traditional fruit cookie or experimental brews that use birch sap, buckwheat or kvas, a fermented bread drink.

Alexander Gromov, who quit his job at a mainstream brewery to become one of Russias many Gypsy brewers, renting factory space to produce his own concoctions, says he hopes to revive a lost national style, such as Polish brewers did with Graetzer beer. Hes planning an ethnographic expedition to villages this summer to search for local recipes. Russia is a beer country, but we forget this. If we dont preserve our own traditions, we will lose them, he says.

Ultimately, Gromov and others hope that Russian craft brews will be able to compete abroad. Its only been two or three years since Russian craft beer got going, says Craft rePUBlic owner Anton Pligin. [The quality] isnt stable, they lose to the American and European craft beers, but theyre not afraid to experiment, and they will eventually be very good.

Read more: