Taking Russian Beer Seriously

Thinking of Russia invariably brings thoughts of vodka, furry hats, and freezing temperatures.  Beer however, does not ordinarily come to mind.  Yet Russian beer is, in fact, surprisingly good.  Although I’ve been lucky to know of Russian beer for quite some time, a friend recently discovered Baltika,  and was particularly impressed at its quality – especially considering it was Russian beer, of all things.

Much like the old Soviet state itself did, the notion of Russian beer as anything more than watery, cheaply produced, low quality swill is dying a slow death.  But it is not surprising that a nation of drinkers would take so well to beer production following the Soviet Union’s collapse in late 1991.  The following year, new capitalism led to the Baltika Brewery’s privatization and reorganization; unfortunately the beer saw mostly regionally-focused marketing throughout the 1990s. 

I was first introduced to Baltika while studying in St. Petersburg in 2001 and was astounded by the selection and quality of beer from a country known for exactly the opposite.  Luckily for my fellow students and I, the Baltika central brewery – conveniently located on the outskirts of Petersburg – offered weekly tours.  A short taxi ride and even shorter facility tour later the group found itself in a windowless room filled with a copious amount, in number and variety, of freshly brewed beer.

Nine varieties – served in pint bottles, two-liter bottles, and gallon-sized glass containers resembling giant laboratory beakers – were arrayed for our enjoyment.  Each variety was numbered (one through nine) and included lagers, porters, and ales.  These numbers are important as they appear on menus and labels to distinguish one type from another; for example, a number three (medium lager) is quite different from a number nine (porter).  The higher the number the darker the beer.

Those traveling in Russia will find Baltika everywhere: groceries; the ubiquitous kiosks lining the streets; even vending machines.  Important to note, beer is not considered a real alcoholic beverage there, which means you can drink it anywhere.  Whether walking down the street or on the metro, the possibilities are endless.  Stateside you must search specialty grocers or Russian markets.  A particularly well-stocked bar might have a dust-covered bottle or two, but only of numbers three, five, or nine.  Maybe eight, if lucky.  But they cannot, of course, be enjoyed while walking down the street or on the metro.

Should you find a Baltika, buy one more than you want.  And remember where to find it.  Because it’s the closest you can get to reliving the memory of drinking one while wandering through a park, a little before noon, on the way back from the brewery.

Published in: on September 1, 2010 at 9:22 pm  Comments Off on Taking Russian Beer Seriously  
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