The Vena (Vienna) Brewery is Russia’s second oldest plant. Leisinger Brauerei of Austria founded it in 1872. The brewing equipment was built in Austria and modern lagering technology was employed. In the 1880s, Vena made use of the new rail network to export its beers to Moscow. Its independence was short-lived, however. In 1889 it was sold to Kalinkin (now called Stepan Razin).
The Vena site has had a checkered history. Reopened and closed in both world wars of the 20th century, it was used mainly as a warehouse by Kalinkin but briefly made much-needed beer during the siege of the city in World War II.
In 1989 it was separated from Stepan Razin and privatized. A majority of its shares were bought by Synebrychoff of Helsinki, which later expanded its share ownership to 68 percent, with the remainder held by the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development. In 1999 Carlsberg acquired Synebrychoff and two years later evenly divided the spoils of Vena with BBH.
Peter Chernyshov, general director of Vena since February this year, previously worked for BBH in the Ukraine. In addition to the Vena products, marketed under the brand name Nevskoye, he produces Tuborg Gold under license. He says that vast amounts of investment have been poured into Vena: an initial investment of $35 million for a water treatment station and kegging and canning lines, followed in 1989 by $70 million for a new brewhouse, fermentation department and bottling line. In 2002, an additional $6 million was spent on further development of the canning facility. Sales of canned beer are growing at a frantic pace in Russia, where young people see it as a “cool” drink.
The modern Steinecker brewhouse employs just six people. All areas of production are computer controlled. The brewhouse and its systems are identical to those at Synebrychoff. Brewing liquid comes from the vast inland sea known as Lake Ladoga, the water purified through sand and charcoal filters. Malt is imported from Finland and stored in six giant silos; more Russian grain will be used in the future. Hops, in the form of pellets and extract, are derived from American and German varieties. Yeast for the Nevskoye brands comes from Finland, while Carlsberg supplies a Tuborg culture.
Mashing and wort filtration take 1.5 hours. The wort is then boiled in the brew kettle for an hour and clarified in a whirlpool. Primary fermentation takes between six and eight days in 33 combi tanks, followed by two weeks of cold maturation in conicals. The whole fermentation and maturation process takes just 21 days.
On a Growth Curve
With only 9 percent of beer consumed on draft in Russia—though a pub and bar trade is growing—canning and bottling at Vena are crucial parts of production. Two bottling halls produce a total of 80,000 bottles an hour, while two canning halls supply more than 70,000 packages every 60 minutes. Vena was the first Russian brewery to use kegs—in Soviet times, only a tiny amount of draft beer was produced and it was served from crude tanks at street stalls. Now it exports to Finland, Israel and Spain.
As a result of the hefty BBH investment, Vena has an annual capacity of more than 2 million hectoliters. In 2002 it produced 1.15 million hectos and expects to make 1.36 million this year. Peter Chernyshov said the brewery grew sales by 20 percent last year and is on course to grow by 16 percent year this year.
Vena brews only pale lagers. It has phased out its revered Imperial Russian Stout and a suggestion that it should import Synebrychoff’s Koff Porter was dismissed out of hand.
The main brands, all labeled Nevskoye after the Neva river that runs through St. Petersburg, are Lite (3.2 percent ABV), Nevskoye (4.6 percent), Classic (5 percent) and Original (5.7 percent). They are malt-accented beers, though Classic and Original have some light citrus notes from the hops and some bitterness in the finish. A touch of black malt is added to the grist for Original to give both a touch of color and perhaps a small genuflection in the direction of its Austrian origins.
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. It produces 8,300,000 hectos a year in St. Petersburg, with a further 3 million at a second brewery in Rostov-on-Don. The Baltika beers are labeled “1” to “8.” Among the pale lagers, there is Baltika 6, a porter that pays homage to Russia’s brewing past. It’s pleasant and sweetish, but it lacks the complexity of the Stepan Razin Porter.
Restless for Success
BBH is restless for success. It’s investing between $150 and $200 million this year in its Russian and Ukranian breweries to boost market share by a further 4 percent. Baltika’s sales fell slightly last year and BBH feels under threat from its main competitor, Sun-Interbrew, a consortium set up by Sun of India and Belgian giant Interbrew. Sun, before merging with Interbrew, bought eight breweries in Russia, and the consortium now owns Klin, the biggest brewery in Moscow. Stella Artois will be brewed under license in Russia, a course that other Western breweries will follow. Heineken this year paid $400 million for the Bravo International Brewery in St. Petersburg and, as it’s the Dutch giant’s policy to replicate its main brands abroad, Amstel and Heineken will soon appear on the Russian market. Heineken inquired about a possible takeover of Stepan Razin and was rebuffed, but how long, one wonders, can this ancient and noble brewery remain independent?
SAB-Miller, a merger of South African Breweries and Miller of Milwaukee, operates under the name of Pilsner Urquell in Russia. It brews the Prague beer, Staropramen, under license and has reached an agreement with Holsten of Hamburg to make Holsten Pils as well. It will start to brew the Czech Kozel brands in Russia, too. Pilsner Urquell is already brewed in Poland and production will start in Russia in the near future, making nonsense of the fact that Urquell means “original source” and can only credibly be brewed in Pilsen.
As international beer brands begin to saturate the Russian market, beer lovers will watch with caution to see whether the country, in its breakneck rush to embrace both the positive and negative aspects of Western culture, will trample on its own rich brewing tradition.