Winds of change are blowing throughout the breweries and brewhouses of the largest country on the planet. Despite Russia’s prolonged economic problems, many new creative breweries with a wide range of remarkable local beers are popping up on the scene. And Russian beer is finding increasing popularity across Europe.
If the Scorpions’ global hit “Winds of Change” were to be re-released, it would be the perfect song to describe what’s happening in the Russian beer scene right now. The land of bears and wolves is currently experiencing an unprecedented trend in specialty beers. Winds of change are blowing through the streets – particularly in the country’s biggest cities such as Moscow, Saint Petersburg and in the Urals. There, new boulevard breweries, craft beer pubs, bars and shops are opening their doors at a rate of nearly every month. Residents of the country’s major cities now also celebrate beer festivals with visitors from all over the world who are flocking there with the express purpose of sampling Russian beers.
The sudden Russian beer trend and the collapse of the Soviet Union
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, international beer giants flooded the market with inexpensive standard beers. At the time, thousands of Finns and Swedes would travel to Saint Petersburg nearly every day to revel in cheap drinking sessions. Even renowned Russian breweries, such as Saint Petersburg’s very own Baltika – which boasts a range of over 20 types of beer – were acquired by the likes of Carlsberg. Following the annexation of Crimea and the ensuing economic boycott of the West, the Ruble exchange rate fell and foreign beers became practically unaffordable for the average consumer. However, an increasing number of new and innovative brewers are now setting up shop with regional craft breweries and specialty brews. Because the Ruble is still relatively cheap, Russians are experiencing a real beer revolution. Market researchers are even confirming that demand for local beer, in particular among younger consumers, is currently outstripping supply.
From berries to birch chips and brandy: Zagovor, the hippest beer bar in Moscow
One of the first modern craft breweries in Moscow is called Zagovor. Located just a stone’s throw away from the Kremlin and Red Square, it has become arguably the hippest beer spot in the whole country in just a very short matter of time. With an adjoining pub, 30 beer taps and a well-stocked shop, the Russians’ unique brews now also attract thirsty beer fans from far-flung countries. Just under three years ago, Zagovor, which roughly translates as “plot” or “conspiracy,” was rated as the best brewery in Russia by the online platform RateBeer. The Moscow-based brewing team is also partial to flavoring their diverse range of beers with local ingredients such as fresh berries, birch chips and a brandy called “Ararat”, which was famous even back in the Tsarist era. Vadim, one of the brewery’s founders – who, like his colleagues, only likes to be addressed with his first name – is convinced that “the market for craft beers in Russia has virtually exploded in next to no time. Luckily, we were in the right place at the right time.”
Types of popular exported Russian beer are also going down well in Berlin’s hip district
The Muscovites are not just enjoying success in Russia. Last year, a beer bar in Berlin’s über-trendy Friedrichshain district also started serving their beers. The bar – Protokoll – boasts 24 taps for beers that creatively incorporate wood, cones and twigs from Russia’s forests. The Russian trendsetters Nikita Filippov, Dmitry Buldakov and Artem Kolchukov from AF Brew (AF stands for Anti-Factory) are also well-known in Germany’s capital. Three years ago they brewed an India Pale Ale (IPA) together with Berlin’s Bierfabrik brewery. “That was our first collaborate brew ever,” says Filippov proudly. However, the three self-starters, who are originally from Saint Petersburg, make a point of using regional raw materials. They have even flavored a brew with specially roasted black salt in homage to local tastes.
Up-and-coming movers and shakers on the Russian scene also include the Vasileostrovskaya brewery on Vasilyevsky Island in the heart of Saint Petersburg and Victory Art Brew, located northeast of Moscow, as well as other craft breweries in remote regions. However a brand new brewing center, run by the Jaws Brewery and considered to be a real trailblazer for the beer movement on the border of Siberia, has even been set up right in the heart of the Urals, in Yekaterinburg. The Jaws brewers adhere strictly to the wise words of the infamous writer and philosopher Leo Tolstoy, who admitted the following about local Russian beers 150 years ago: “One may chop wood, make bricks, forge iron without love, but one cannot brew beer without love.”