Andy Jungwirth, the social media manager and export development manager of Lakefront Brewery in Milwaukee, WI shares the story of the brewery’s relationship with Ukraine. He talks about how the months-long war led to a special label that has raised significant funds for displaced beer industry workers in the country.
Lakefront was one of the first American craft breweries to export to Ukraine. Back in 2015, Ukraine’s largest grocery store chain, Fozzy Group, contacted the Brewers Association with interest in importing American craft beer. We got a generic email asking if we’d be interested and I was way into the opportunity.
The only American breweries I saw on the shelves the first time I visited were some macros, like you’d see a little bit of Budweiser on the street or whatnot. This advantageous grocery chain had a premium import department that full-on embraced quality, flavorful beer.
They were kind of testing the waters, and it seemed that they were not getting that much interest from any American craft breweries, maybe because there was already a war that Russia provoked in Crimea in 2014 and there was a bit of a stigma? Perhaps breweries didn’t want to assume
the risk or liability of entering a region that could be unstable? Admittedly, it was not a huge established market like the UK or France, but it was very intriguing to me!
So that year at the Great American Beer Festival I had a drink with their import manager, Sam, and our owner Russ Klisch and we gave him a presentation of our brands. We heard back a few months later that they were very much interested.
The next step was navigating all of the red tape of logistics, customs compliance and documentation, all the legal stuff, and we confidently shipped the beer off to Ukraine. It was received very well and I was invited to represent Lakefront at “Beermaster Day”, Fozzy’s annual beer festival.
Arriving in Ukraine
When I arrived at the first festival I saw many Belgian imports, all the Trappists, German lagers, British ales, etc. There were only other U.S. breweries: Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, and Stone Brewing, but they hadn’t sent
any reps, so I believe I was the first American independent brewery rep to visit Ukraine. Beermaster Day was such an amazing beer festival. Consumers know their shit, all the nuances of classic styles, and they’re eager to pick up on all the new style trends. It was clearly fertile ground for building a vibrant craft beer community, the number of quality startups had continued to increase every year I visited. And our midwest friends at Saugatuck Brewery from Michigan started to export there in 2017, I believe. I love partying with their reps at Beermaster Day.
Fozzy has been ordering one or two containers a years since 2015, a nice mix of core brands and everything new and exciting. They love our Hazy Rabbit and New Grist as well as specialties like our Brandy Barrel-Aged Imperial Pumpkin. Fozzy continually invited me back to their yearly festival, I feel like a star, I’ve even received an award for perfect attendance. It’s really an exciting market. Ukrainians full-on embrace elements of Western culture, music, art, night life, etc. and there are so many beer geeks. They are consuming all of the American brewing podcasts and passionately embrace beer education.
I’ve been to Ukraine six times now, the last time being in 2020. I’ve gone for festivals and
collaborations, including with Pravda Brewery and Underwood Brewery, and I’ve built long-standing business relationships and friendships with so many Ukrainian people
Response to the Invasion
Once Russia escalated the war, we were just shocked. I came into the office the next day and immediately began a discussion with Russ about what we could do. Ideally I wanted to re-brew the collaboration Lviv-Milwaukee India Pale Lager that I brewed collaboratively with Pravda Brewing in 2018 but it was immediately shot down due to our production situation.
See, we primarily have big fermenters devoted to core beer production, 30 x 100 and 200 barrel tanks. We only have one 15 barrel and one 30 barrel fermenter for scheduled test batches, so we can’t just pivot and turn a last minute one-off over. There are a lot of moving parts and the fermenters are spoken for.
Russ suggested that we do a crowler label fundraiser instead. We have a crowler machine that we used a lot in the early days of the pandemic, and we’d already done a successful Black Lives Matter label benefitting Milwaukee’s Urban Underground. Customers could just choose any of our 16 different draft beers instead of one style, and they get the labeled crowler as a souvenir or to shout their support on social media, etc. Russ was right, it was the best idea.
Our marketing team took inspiration from a bottle of beer I brought back from Ukraine in 2017, Pravda Brewery’s “Putin Huilo” Golden Ale, which translates to “Putin is a Dickhead”. Their provocative brands and award winning beers are what attracted me to brew a collaboration beer with them in 2018. We moved forward with a crowler campaign with our own “Putin Is A Dick” label featuring a buffoonish caricature of Russia’s dictator. We were able to expedite the initiative rather quickly. We had the label stickers ready in a week. I put it up on social media the following Friday, it went viral, and we had a line out the brewery door within minutes! Our amazing employees stepped up to do overtime, proudly wrapping stickers and filling cans above and beyond their busy shifts. And it didn’t let up for weeks! So many compassionate customers were desperately seeking any way they could to support innocent Ukrainians ASAP and thankfully we were able to step up right away and provide that avenue due to our personal connections with colleagues at Fozzy.
Our crowlers generally cost $10, so we added $5 to the cost and the brewery also matched $5 for each sold. We quickly raised $20,000 and sent the proceeds to the Bank of Ukraine Humanitarian Relief Fund that was on a list of trusted organizations provided by Fozzy.
At the end of March, our importers reached out with a personal plea. They were in the process of reconstructing a building in Chernivtsi City to house 350 of their displaced employees and suggested that we send funds directly to this project. We were even more confident that the donations went to support our Ukrainian friends with no bureaucracies involved.
Fozzy continues to suffer setbacks. I’m shocked at the number of their stores and warehouses that have been bombed, and they turn around and rebuild right away. They are such strong, resilient, determined people! Their stores have become crucial humanitarian public services in many ways.
Fozzy works diligently to maintain their food supply chains so they can quickly deliver any humanitarian aid from anywhere in the world to any of their 650 stores. Many have generators that continue to work during blackouts and they are able to supply people with power to charge their devices.
We have raised over $140,658.89 through December 2022. Russia’s unnecessary war continues to rage on the innocent Ukrainians, and they will continue to defend their sovereign nation.
In the words most often written by Ukrainian friends in my correspondence, “We will win! Glory to Ukraine!
It’s My Round is a regular feature on All About Beer featuring personal essays relating to beer experiences and journeys. Learn more or inquire about submissions by emailing Info@allaboutbeer.com