A Brewery for the Czar’s Court
A visit to the Stepan Razin Brewery, the oldest and biggest in St. Petersburg, is a step back in time in many ways. In the old Soviet manner, visitors must pass through security turnstiles, be booked in and have a pass studied at frequent intervals by young men sitting forlornly on chairs in corridors. The history of the company and the quality of the beer, however, outweigh the inconvenience.
Stepan Razin has opened a museum on the site dedicated to the history of brewing in Russia, which remained a domestic industry until the 18th and 19th centuries. Ancient brewing artifacts are on view, along with photographs that trace the history of the brewery. Old advertisements and promotions inter-mingle with flags, banners and Orders of Lenin from the Soviet period.
A Swede, Abraham Krohn, founded the brewery in 1795. He brewed English-style ales and porters, which he delivered to the czar’s court. The products were known as Krohn until the company merged with a rival brewery run by an Englishman called Noah Kazalet. The new company was called Kalinkin after a major bridge across the Neva river, and its beers won prestigious prizes at Great Exhibitions held in St. Petersburg in the 1870s and again in 1909.
By the mid-19th century, Kalinkin moved from ale to lager, using decoction mashing and cold maturation, and began to sell its beer throughout Russia. The site of the brewery had been chosen due to its proximity to the Neva and a plentiful supply of soft water that was ideal for lager brewing. In the early 20th century it produced Pilsner, Export, Bavarian Dark and Pale, Pale Ale, Porter and Imperial Extra Double Stout.
In 1922 the name of the brewery was changed to Stepan Razin, in memory of a 17th-century Cossack leader who was put to death in 1671 for leading an insur-rection against the czar. The new title was part of a government policy of renaming many Soviet enterprises after revolutionary heroes.
Leon Trotsky encouraged the brewery to expand. The former commissar for war threw himself, with his renowned vitality, into the government’s new economic policy (NEP) that allowed a limited free market to develop in order that peasants and urban capitalists could supply basic goods to the people. It may have been Trotsky’s influence that allowed a new German brewhouse to be installed in 1925. By that time the brands on offer included Pilsner, Porter, Marzen, Leningrad Beer (to reflect the new name for St. Petersburg) and Red Bavarian.
With Trotsky expelled from the Soviet Union and his supporters crushed, Stalin killed NEP and moved to a rigid centralized economy. Stepan Razin’s main function was to supply beer to party bosses, their special shops, and Intourist hotels. During World War II, brewing stopped due to lack of materials. The plant was reduced to making bread and paper.
Today’s Stepan Razin
In the 1960s the brewery was allowed to develop new sales by delivering bottled beer to people’s homes. Gradually it moved back into the limelight and its products became more widely available. The Gorbachev era allowed further expansion, and then came privatization and separation from Vena.
Today, Stepan Razin accounts for 30 percent of the St. Petersburg market and proudly proclaims that it is the only Russian-owned brewery in the city. It produced 1.6 million hectoliters in 2001, 1.7 million in 2002, and expects further growth this year. Its superb brewhouse, with classic burnished copper mashing, lautering and boiling kettles, produces a wide range of beers that includes its main brand, Petrovska (4.5 percent ABV), Student Beer (3.5 percent), Admiralty (4.5 percent), a 4 percent Special, 5.6 percent Gold, and an 8 percent Porter. It also brews a Bavarian-style Märzen and an “old recipe beer,” which is based on a Bavarian double bock. Lagering is in horizontal tanks that were installed between 40 and 50 years ago.
The beers are magnificent, rich in malt and hop character, with great depth and complexity. The porter, which is cold fermented, is one of the finest of the family, with a roasted grain, coffee, chocolate and vinous aroma and palate, underscored by generous hopping. It is brewed from pale, roast and caramalt, with Nugget and Goldings hops. Lagering lasts for an impressive 90 days. It has 35-40 units of bitterness. The Märzen uses pale and caramalt with Nugget hops and 40 IBUs.