A staple drink of Russia’s recession comes in different flavors but it’s best consumed standing up. Food is optional.
Not a beer country until the arrival a decade ago of a central European tradition of sit-down bars that married brews with hearty meals, Russia is now reveling in the new craft labels that have exploded in popularity during the nation’s longest recession this century.
The number of Russian microbreweries soared tenfold in the past five years, and almost all of Moscow’s 100 or so watering holes serving craft beer opened in the last two years after the ruble’s crash left some local brews costing less than half the price for imported beer.
“It’s a relatively inexpensive luxury,” said Douglas Zent, a Texan who’s been the financial muscle behind Moscow Region-based Victory Art Brew.
While the craft beer revolution may have been decades late to touch down in Russia, it’s caught on as inflation and a currency crisis gutted salaries, forcing people to make do with less. The new names on offer are taking off not just by appealing to the palate but also by sparing the wallet. What’s more, the dives serve up craft beer as part of a more spartan setup where food is often an afterthought, an inviting option in the age of thrift as Russians navigate the ordeal of recession.
The Indian pale ales and imperial stouts offered across the capital — at bars that sometimes feature hundreds of varieties on tap and bottled — are helping Muscovites stretch the ruble that’s lost almost half its value against the dollar since the start of 2014 as oil prices nosedived. Craft beer finally clicked with younger Russians even as an estimated 14 million people crashed out of the middle class in the past two years and many increasingly skimp on even basic necessities such as medicines.
It’s also a challenge for the biggest foreign brewers, their dominance already eroded by competition. As the beer market shrank by a third since 2008 because of more stringent regulations and falling incomes, the share of Anheuser-Busch InBev Carlsberg, Heineken and Anadolu Efes has been on the decline.
While costlier than the standard supermarket fare, craft brands are still a budget option compared with the imported labels on offer at more traditional bars or restaurants, according to Andrey Serganov. His BeerMarket is part of the so-called “beer triangle” in downtown Moscow, its courtyard thronged by locals knocking back pints, a scene eerily similar to London.
“If you’ve tried craft, you’ll never go back to lager,” said Anton Evdokimov, owner of the Bottle, Mug and Boiler pub in downtown Moscow. “People try Indian pale ale and the way they think about beer changes straight away. Then they want something new, they like to experiment, play with tastes.”
Unlike the traditional haunts of the older generation, where sausages inevitably accompanied the bland lagers, Zent says Victory Art Brew caters to a younger clientele, cultivating a taste for a grapefruit IPA and chocolate-flavored stout, with sour beer the biggest hit with the in-crowd last summer.