Russian beer is hopy and sometimes rather flat. Some local Russian beers are not pasteurized and travelers sometimes have stomach problems after drinking them past their expiration dates (about three days after production). Many Russians prefers fresh unpasteurized brews. Beer is not all that expensive. A half liter bottle sold for less than a dollar in the 1990s.
Popular brands of beer include Baltika, Ochakovskoye, Klinskoye, Sun, and Vena. Some brands sucha Moscovskoe and St. Petersburgskoe are named after the city in which they are produced. St. Petersburg is said to produce the best beers. St. Petersburg-produced Baltika, which has cloves and garlic added to it, is exceptionally good. Foreign beers are available. Some bars serves Heineken and Grolsch on tap.
Russia was the fastest growing beer market in the 1990s. Per capita beer consumption doubled between 1994 and 1997 to 2.7 billion liters and doubled again between 1998 and 2003 to 52.5 liters. Consumption dropped dropped in the late 1990s because of the rising costs for imported ingredients and packaging and foreign competition.
Beer Sales and Consumption in Russia
On the streets you see people carrying around large bottles of Baltika beer. Bottles of cheap beer sell for 15 rubles. Bottles of Baltika sell for 20 rubles. The cheapest vodka sells for around 80 rubles a bottle. A bottle of cheap Bulgarian white wine goes for 60 rubles. A bottle of good Georgian red wine goes for 300 rubles.
Beer is sold alongside soft drinks at supermarkets. It isn’t even considered an alcoholic drink in the eyes of the state. People not only drink it in bars, cafes, restaurant and at home they also commonly drink it on the streets, in parks, on subways and almost any public place you can think of, at almost any time of the day.
There have traditionally no laws or traditions to discourage public drinking. On the streets you see people carrying around large bottles of Baltika beer. Workers often drink bottles Baltika and Ochakovskoye on their way to work. When Russians want to get a buzz they add a shot of vodka to their beer.
Russians have always liked beer but traditionally drank vodka because it was more available and it delivered more alcohol and bigger kick for the money (vodka and beer traditionally sold for the same price but vodka has up 10 ten times more alcohol).
Newly converted beer drinkers include young people, women and people who realized they can's drink vodka every night and want something lighter. Many Russians began drinking more beer in response to the anti-vodka campaigns. They have also been encouraged by huge amounts of advertising by beer companies on television, radio and on billboards slapped up all over the place. In the early 2000s, roughly 10 percent of the total $1.5 billion spent on all advertising came from beer breweries. Many professional sports teams rely heavy on beer business support to keep going.
Beer Production and Prohibitions in Russia
In the Communist era, all brewers followed the same recipe. Poor quality control and pilferage of ingredients meant lousy tasting beer that people drank only when they couldn't find anything else.
The St. Petersburg-based breweries Baltika and Bravo, dominate the Russian beer market. Beer companies fill the airwaves with commercials and sponsor man sports teams.
Top beer producers in 2003: 1) China (25.1 million kiloliters, 17.1 percent of the world’s production, 7 percent increase from the previous year); 2) the United States (23.08 million kiloliters, 15.6 percent of the world’s production, 1.6 percent decrease from the previous year); 3) Germany (10.53 million kiloliters, 2.1 percent decrease from the previous year); 4) Brazil (8.52 million kiloliters, 2.3 percent increase from the previous year); 5) Russia (7.57 million kiloliters, 7.8 percent increase from the previous year); 6) Mexico (6.64 million kiloliters, 4.3 percent increase from the previous year); 7) Japan (6.53 million kiloliters, 6.5 percent decrease from the previous year). [Source: Kirin Brewery]
In October 2004, the Duma endorsed a bill that would make it illegal to drink beer in public, on streets, in stadiums, on public transportation. Violators have to pay a fine of $3.50, or four times the price of an average bottle of beer. Drinking and other spirits in public was already illegal by that time. The bill also banned the sale of beer near schools and universities and to people under 18 and restricted beer commercials and advertising At that bee consumption was blamed for many social problems such as hooliganism and teenage alcoholism.
The prohibition included on ban on television and radio advertising from 7:00am to 10:00pm and when it was hwom iaged of people and animal was probated as are slogans that create the “illusion that drinking beer is important for the achievement of social or other successes.;
Wine and Champagne in Russia
Russians like to drink Merlot and Cabernet wines from Moldova. A bottle of cheap Bulgarian white wine goes for 60 rubles. A bottle of good Georgian red wine sells for 300 rubles.
About 9.2 million bottles of champagne were sold in 1997 in Moscow. Much of it was produced in Georgia and the Crimea. Russian champagne is very sweet. In the 1990s, much of it was made from unfermented Argentine grape juice and sold for $1 a bottle in Istanbul. Dom Perignon champagne sells restaurants at $200 a bottle.
In 1998, treasure hunters discovered 2,500 bottles of 1907 Heidsieck and Co. Monopole champagne on the bottom of the Baltic. Bound for the wine cellars of Nicholas II, the were discovered on a ship sunk by a German U-boat in 1916. Even though the champagne went flat minutes after it was opened, it was sold for $4,000 a bottle.
Kvass, Kefir and Kousmiss
Kvass is a mildly alcoholic, yeasty, beer made from fermented brown or rye bread. Not really regarded as an alcoholic drink, it is often sold on the streets or at sidewalk stands and tastes a little like ginger beer. In Moscow you can buy it on the grounds of medieval monasteries. In some places it is delivered by tanker truck.
A kovsh is a traditional Russia drinking vessel. Quite large, it provides ample proof that Russians were as big of drinkers in the old days as they today.
Kefir, a yoghurt-like drink that originated in the Caucasus mountains, is made from cow, goat or sheep milk fermented with whitish or yellowish Kefir grains, which when left in the milk overnight turns it into a fizzing, frothing beer-like brew. Kefir is sometimes prescribed by doctors as a treatment for tuberculosis and other diseases.
Koumiss, fermented mare's milk, is consumed in some parts of Russia. In the 1970s, some 230,000 horses were kept in the Soviet Union solely for the purpose of making koumiss. It too is sometimes used as a treatment for tuberculosis and other diseases.
In Siberia and beer is made from mare's milk. The favorite drink is spirit, a drink that is 96 percent alcohol. One of the advantages of this drink is that it doesn't freeze as easily as vodka. It is sometimes consumed with cheese ice-cream and the frozen marrow from reindeer bone.
See Koumiss in the article DRINKS IN KYRGYZSTAN factsanddetails.com ]
In rural Russia may many people drink samogon, Russian moonshine or white lightning. "Samogon" literally means "run by myself,” a reference to its production process. Samogen consumption increased dramatically after Gorbachev launched his anti-vodka campaign and increased further after the break up of the Soviet Union in 1991, when production was legalized but selling it wasn’t. As living standards dropped, people found they could more bang for their buck by drinking samogen than vodka. By 1994, samogen accounted for one of every six drinks consumed in Russia.
Samogen can be made from use tea, milk, bread, rice, potatoes, beet roots and even wooden stools and generally has a potency of between 30 and 50 proof. A typical samogen recipe calls for 100 grams of yeast, 10 kilograms of sugar, 4 liters of fresh milk, and 40 liters of water to be mixed in a washing machines for two hours and then distilled in stove-top vat connected to a pipe that spirals into a bucket.
Generally the mixture of yeast and sugar, called pbrag, is allowed to ferment for at least a week. During that time it changes from a yucky brown color to clear. Then it is distilled by heating and allowing the steam to condense on pipes. Sometimes chicken droppings or tobacco is added to make it stronger (this sometimes is the cause of alcohol poisoning). Sometimes weak batched have sleeping pills thrown in to knock drinkers out. Many makers take pride in the clarity and purity of their products.
Samogen has a harsh, caustic taste. It is often consumed with slices of onions and pickled cucumbers. Some people make their own moonshine for their own consumption at home. Sometimes it is cloudy and greenish in color and kept in old strawberry jam jars.
Samogen Producers and Money
A lot of samogen is made by old woman in their homes using homemade stills jury rigged from pots, buckets, hoses and pipes. The smell of the production process is often so overwhelming that you can get drunk just breathing in the fumes. One babushka, who produces about 400 liters a month, told the New York Times, "People come and make orders for weddings, birthday parties, funerals—we had a lot of orders for the New Year's celebrations. People know what I sell, and they know it's strong.
In villages, where there is little money and few jobs, making samogen is one of the few ways to earn a decent income. A typical producer can sell 17 liters a day for $25, for a profit of about $15 after expenses are subtracted, and makes between $225 and $325 a month. By comparison teachers and nurses make as little as $50 a month..
A half liter of samogen goes for around 70 cents a bottle compared to $1 for a half liter of the cheapest vodka. One of the main expenses is bribes to corrupt authorities who can levy fines of $350. In the Communist era, producers risked prison terms of several years. Back then stills were sometimes loaded on horse drawn carts and hidden in the woods. These days they are hidden behind curtains in a shed or a back room.
Moonshine production has hurt local governments by denying them tax income. One regional government collected 36 percent of its budget from vodka taxes in the 1980s, but only 2 percent in the 1990s.
Many people sell homemade wine and samogen on the streets. Moonshiners from the Caucasus make the four day drive from their homes to Moscow with a trunk full of their product, hire somebody to stand guard while they sell it by the glass, and return home with the profits. Occasionally they are told to move along by the police but the hardest part of their job is putting up with racial insults.♠
Getting Drunk on Tractor Oil
Russians desperate to get drunk have consumed rubbing alcohol, shoe polish, brake fluid insecticide, cologne, antiperspirants and even tractor oil spread on bread like butter. This was especially became the case when Gorbachev was conducting his anti-alcohol campaign.
Some Russians ferment dangerous chemicals in home-made stills. "It a way to get drunk," Moscow State University sociologist Anatoly Antonov told the New York Times. "And that was far more important to millions of people than how long the live. They would drink brake fluid or kerosene if that was all that was available.”
Pilots became fond of drinking the exceptionally pure alcohol used as a de-icer for MIG-25 jets. The practice was so popular than the MIG-25 became known as the "flying restaurant." Some pilots almost died when they found the alcohol used as a de-icer had been removed and replaced with water, causing the planes to ice up. [Source: Stephen White]
Some restaurant serve homemade juices made from fruits and berries. Common drinks include kefir (yogurty, buttermilk-like, Caucasus-style fermented sheep or goat milk, often taken for hangover relief), kvass, sok (heavily diluted juice) and soft drinks like Coke, Pepsi and Fanta. Buffets often have pitchers of homemade juice and kvass. Milk is sold at dairy shops. It is often not pasteurized.
Russians don't drink much water. They drink mostly tea and vodka. They often eat huge meals without drinking anything. One Russian man told the Washington Post, "We were always told that too much water makes your heart work too hard."
About 200,000 cups of cappuccino were sold in 1997 in Moscow, up from 10,000 sold in 1994. Siberian-made Crazy Cola was giving Coca-Cola a run for its money in Far Eastern cities like Kranoyarsk in the 1990s.
Russians are big tea drinkers. They tend to drink it from a glass, holding the glass at the rim, rather than a cup. Russians rarely put milk in their tea. Sometimes they add lemon or jam or sip it through a sugar cube placed in their mouth. Coffee generally is either instant or espresso-style served on a small cup.
Russian tea is often very sweet. Black Russian tea is known as chai. It is often bought in bricks. Many Russians pour a little bit of strong tea in a cup and then make the tea to their liking by adding as much or as little hot water as they want. Kitchen conversations have traditionally taken place over endless cigarettes and cups of tea and vodka.
Traditional Russian tea is brewed strong in pot and poured into glass that is filled with water from a samovar, a Russian tea urn. Samovars are often large and ornate. Old ones are like big coal-filed kettles. The water in a traditional samovar is heated with an inner tube filled with hot charcoal. Modern samovar have electric heating elements.
Tea consumption per person a year in Russia (2002): 2.60 pounds, compared to 5.05 pounds in Turkey, the world’s largest consumer of tea, and 4.94 pounds in Britain. Four and half pounds is roughly equal to 1,000 cups of tea. [Source: London-based Datamonitor]
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated May 2016