When the Soviet Union collapsed and Winston Churchill’s famous Iron Curtain opened, observers of the brewing scene discovered that Russians drink beer as well as vodka. The country has a fascinating brewing tradition that was hidden from view for most of the 20th century.
Vena is a substantial brewery but it’s a minnow compared to Baltika which has grown in just 10 years to become Russia’s biggest beer producer.
A decade later, the concern now is whether that indigenous tradition can survive an assault from the global brewers of the West. Excluding the former Soviet republics, Russia itself had 300 breweries in the early 1990s. Within a decade, many have closed, and overseas brewers have bought nearly all of the rest. Only four or five remain in Russian hands.
The arrival of the free market in Russia has coincided with an explosion of beer drinking. Mikhail Gorbachev’s campaign to discourage the consumption of vodka prompted a switch to beer, a switch that has been boosted by the marketing techniques of Western companies in the 1990s and early 21st century. Today, Russia is the fastest-growing beer market in the world. Beer production has grown by 30 percent a year, from 28 million hectoliters in 1997 to 73 million in 2002. Growth is expected to be slower this year, but that is only because in previous years it has been so phenomenal.
That does not mean the country is satiated. Russians drink 40 liters of beer a year, compared to the Germans’ 128 liters and the Czechs’ 150 liters. There is still some catching up to be done, though national averages can be misleading. In Moscow and St. Petersburg, the country’s two major cities, the people manage a more respectable 100 liters per head a year.
All the usual big global companies— Heineken, Holsten, Interbrew/ Staropramen, SAB-Miller/Pilsner Urquell —are involved in the Russian market, either as importers or as owners of breweries. But far and away the biggest players are Carlsberg and Scottish & Newcastle. S&N, Britain’s biggest brewer, entered the Baltic and Russian markets by buying the Finnish brewer, Hartwall, while Carlsberg also moved east by buying Finland’s other major brewer, Synebrychoff. The two brewing giants have created a consortium known as Baltic Beverages Holding (BBH).
As a result, Carlsberg independently or with S&N via BBH now dominates the Russian beer scene. BBH alone owns 16 breweries in the former USSR and accounts for 21 percent of the Russian beer market. In the early 1990s, it built the Baltika Brewery on a greenfield site near St. Petersburg and it is now Russia’s biggest supplier of beer. Baltika has built a second plant at Rostov-on-Don.
Nowhere is the contrast between old and modern Russian brewing more glaring and fascinating than in St. Petersburg, the country’s second city, founded 300 years ago by Czar Peter the First—Peter the Great—as an opulent, architecturally stunning, Western-style city on the Bay of Finland. Peter encouraged the development of modern industry and decreed that beer should be made available for hospitals and the navy. Brewing, which along with hop growing, had been a domestic enterprise for centuries, began to blossom commer-cially. Thus it is no accident that Russia’s two oldest breweries are based in St. Petersburg.
Commercial beer at first was made by warm fermentation. English ales, such as Burton brown beers and London stout and porter, were prized and replicated. The climate, an inexhaustible supply of ice, and the influence of events in Bavaria and Bohemia prompted a switch to cold fermentation in the 19th century. Dark beers remain popular, however, and account for 10 percent of the beer market. These include imperial stouts and porters, though they are made by cold fermentation today. Dark beers are especially popular with women drinkers, who consider them to have important benefits during and after pregnancy.