I was lucky enough to be invited to the 22nd Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia as part of the technical team that provides the television coverage to the world. Work comes first of course, but during time off I took this as an opportunity to explore beer in this land once described by Winston Churchill as ‘a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.’ I’d have to say through personal experience that is still true today. But Russians are a warm and gregarious people, at once fiercely proud and independent, but also a generous and interesting lot, sharing their wry sense of humour and views on life quite readily, especially after a few beers.
Sochi is a large city in the Krasnodar Krai region of Russia on the Black Sea, an area stretching from the Crimea in the west to Georgia in the east. The city itself rests on the geographical border between Europe and Asia, split by the Kuban River and boasting a population of 345,000 spread out along the pebbly coastline with the striking Caucasus Mountains as their backdrop. This is ancient Kuban, a dynasty established in 630, but held under the influence of many others throughout the centuries: Rome, Byzantium, Genghis Khan, various Khanates and the Ottoman Empire before Russia came on the scene in the 1700s. It’s been an escape from Russian winters for czars, party apparatchiks and oligarchs ever since, as it is one of the only subtropical areas in this frozen country.
The games were not actually held in Sochi itself, but up in the mountains at Krasnaya Polyana is where the alpine events were held, at a brand new resort made for these events. Further down the coast in the town of Adler is where the ice events took place, at the Coastal Cluster.
With a year round population of 76,000, this is a busy little place, as it is the most popular resort destination for your average Russian tourist. There are hotels, hostels, seaside resorts and now more luxury accommodations along the Black Sea coast and of course, a lot of beer bars and restaurants of various sizes.
Russia is known for vodka, but they love their beer too. In 2011, there were 561 breweries operating in Russia. Among them, 40 large industrial producers, 76 smaller regional breweries, 263 microbreweries and 182 brewpubs spread throughout this very large land.
The largest of these is Baltika, who own 38% of the market and were also the official brewer of the 22nd Winter Olympic Games. Baltika opened in 1990, a large St. Petersburg based corporation, now part of the international Carlsberg Group. They produce 1/2 billion litres of beer annually through 30 brands and put out a line of beers that would not be out of place in many parts of the world. In fact they export their beer to 75 countries right around the globe.
The two that led the charge it seemed, in terms of advertising and presence at the Games were Baltika 3 and Baltika 7. Batika 3 is described as a ‘classic pilsner’, but in reality it is a simple lager (4.8%), along the lines of Lucky Lager, pale yellow, neutral in aroma and palate, with a lingering aftertaste. Balika 7 (5.4%) is a bit better, fuller, being an export in style, with more body, a better balance of malt and hop, more golden in colour and decent carbonation. It was interesting that these two brews were available almost everywhere you went except at the Olympic venues themselves. Whether part of the massive security plans in place for the games, or Russia’s nation-wide battle against alcoholism, the only Baltika product you could buy during a curling or hockey match was Baltika 0, their alcohol free brew. There were certainly no incidents of drunkenness on the grounds that any of us saw.
Baltika does make a few more interesting products though. Baltika 8, their only unfiltered product, a very delicious and refreshing wheat beer, cloudy straw in colour, with a touch of clove and a hint of citrus on the palate, much lighter in body than some German style weizenbiers, but well balanced and an excellent brew to sip on the sunny patios in the city, as it was +18C or better most days, we hardly knew it was winter.
Baltika 9 is a big, robust brew and at 8% abv, one of the strongest beers I found. Big malty nose hints at its strength, as does the full bodied, deeply goldenhued pour. A light head falls quickly, but laces coyingly. The first sip tells the tale: strong, bock-like, malt accented, alcohol evident in the palate, yet balanced with enough hop to keep the malt sweetness in check, especially in the long, lingering finish.
To see where the real population lived and worked, and where Russians who traveled in for the games stayed, you had to leave the Olympic park, cross the Mzymta River to the west by foot bridge and walk downtown. The seafront boasted new buildings that housed many restaurants and bars, with a lovely promenade by the sea. I led a small posse of colleagues up through the labyrinth of streets to find a few typical Russian beer bars and to taste the local ambrosia. Some were simply small standing only rooms with half a dozen taps and the ubiquitous dry, salted fish hanging on the wall (the Russian snack to enjoy with beer!) “Add potato chips and you’ve got Russian fish & chips!” someone in our grouped joked. Others were larger sit down beer hall type spots, boasting larger menus and a greater selection of domestic brews.
With beer itself, Russians don’t distinguish between lagers and ales much, but rather by colour. Lighter coloured brews are ‘svetlie’ are generally lagers and pilsners, the darker ones ‘tomnie’ being ales of one sort or another, from brown ale to porter.
The first place we walk into, there is lots of choice, maybe 12 taps or more. There’s a dark Baltic porter, a light Czech Pilsner, a Bavarian wheat and Maykorskaya ‘Concord‘, all served by the half litre stein, all 80 rubles, or about $2.50. You can get take out bottles too. Any beer bar will fill half litre, one litre or two litre bottles to take home. Display cards list the beer at every tap, style, colour, alcohol by volume, ‘filtered’ or ‘unfiltered’, and whether it is ‘zhivoy’, meaning ‘alive’ or unpasteurized. These are of course the tastier brews. They have a number more at Moray Pivbar (The Sea Beer Bar), and a helpful, curious Russian fellow drops in to show us how to pull apart one of those dried fish. Very tasty, but very salty. More beer please!
This story repeats itself as we take our impromptu pub crawl towards a lunch spot I found online. There’s ‘Beerolog’ and ‘Zakusichnaya Pivbar’, or ‘Eatery Beer Bar’ across the street from each other, larger but darker pubs with more than dried fish on the menu. There’s the ‘Svarenoy Vcheera‘ or ‘Made Yesterday’ testifying to the freshness of their ‘live unfiltered’ beers. Russians enjoy a good Czech Pilsner, so we find quite a number made in that style, as well as light lager knock offs like ‘Sibersky Corona‘. Still, wherever I asked for a ‘tomnie’, or dark beer, I always got a deliciously malty dark ale or a deep, black full bodied porter.
We lunch at the Pub ‘VyBEERay‘ which loosely translates as ‘Take Your Choice’, a small German style beer hall boasting 14 taps, a real pub menu (the chicken wings were gargantuan!) and sports on the TV. Here we try a local brew made in Sochi, a light 4.5% unfiltered lager for 70 rubles, always served in a half litre dimpled mug. Although the ladies in our group got nicer, taller pilsner glasses (some sort of reverse sexiest beer thing?) We try unfiltered, dark wheat beer (some subtle spicing), and something more local, made up in the mountains in Tikhorets not far from here, a 4.4% unpasteurized, unfiltered pilsner that was quite tasty, perhaps even with some hops in there. Interestingly, many of the tap beers I found lacked aromatic qualities, the nose often quite neutral, seemingly due to the very conservative use of hops in most beers, the Russian palate preferring a balanced malt sweetness over hop bitterness, especially in their darker beers. Still, there was a lot of taste to go around, especially in the unfiltered and unpasteurized beers. I have to admit, I speak more than a little Russian, so I had a bit of an advantage in reading what was on offer and asking the right questions. Most bartenders were well versed in what they were serving and we’re happy to provide tasters when requested. So, there is choice for your average Russian beer drinker, though their spectrum may be narrower than ours, the discerning beerdrinker can find an interesting variety, they just need to read the taps. Of course, the bottled varieties tend to be filtered, but some are ‘zhivoy’, you just have to read the label. I found no IPAs, nor anything you could call a pale ale, but Russian made Irish Ale is becoming increasingly popular.
We end our day’s wanderings as night falls in the coolest little lounge/beer bar yet, the Pivoley. Here they had the aforementioned Russian Irish ale. Quite palatable I’d say, much like a darker, maltier Swithwicks, thick tan head, good lacing, middle balance, someroastiness, toffee notes. The unfiltered Czech style pilsners were all exceptional. While enjoying these unique beverages, I had been chatting up the bar staff, always anxious to use my Russian, when I meet Igor, seemingly the proprietor of this place. He’s pleased we’ve wandered into his bar out of the blue and are enjoying Russian beers. He wants to show us around the city, but we’ve been pub crawling all day I explain and have a long day of work ahead of us tomorrow, so politely we decline. He then insists on at least offering us a ride back to our hotel, which we very much appreciate. Two minutes later there’s a large, shiny black Toyota SUV out front. We get home in 10 minutes.
Russians are a generous people, and are proud of what they shared with rest of the world through the Sochi Winter Games. Being able to sit down and have a beer with some of the locals was an experience too. As always, beer is best shared, it is a bond that starts conversations and we are all better off for it. Especially when you consider what has happened in this region since the Games ended, maybe we all need to drink more beer and spend more time talking to each other.
As luck would have it, a day appeared in my schedule that would allow me to take the train to Sochi, an hours journey that travels slowly along the Black Sea coast. Bob and Bruce joined me for the day’s adventure, but we had to be back in Adler for the evening shift. It was a bit rushed as it turned out, but it had to be done! We arrived at the renovated Central Train Station with 3 destinations in hand. Culled from the internet I discovered 3 brewpubs listed in Sochi, so was very excited to taste fresh made beer at the pub where it was made. We made our way on foot, consulting the tourist map we picked up frequently, along well treed avenues, through a lengthy modern outdoor mall that cut through the centre of the city, running parallel to a large park that eventually dumped us out exactly where we wanted to be, steps away from Dobry Ale, the first brewpub on my list.
Interestingly, the pub was on the fourth floor and we had to enter through a cell phone store. However we soon found ourselves exiting the elevator into a somewhat dark L shaped room. It was pretty quiet. Even though our arrival during what most might consider the lunch hour, the place was virtually empty. It took a bit of prodding to get the waitress away from her cell phone long enough to bring us some beers. I then asked if the head brewer was around. “Nyet.” I asked if we could see the brewery. “Nyet.” Was there anyone we could talk to about the beer? “Nyet.” It was very apparent that she was not the helpful type, but at least did she pour us tasters and she did allow us to take pictures and shoot video (see From Russia With Beer, beertheshow Episode 5) and we did manage to taste most of their beers.
The main house brews were a light and dark versions of their Belinskoy unfiltered ales. These are medium bodied, full flavoured beers, emphasizing the malt, hops being buried, but drying out nicely in the finish. Also on tap was a decent Irish ale, a subtly spiced Ginger beer, a way-too-sweet Honey ale, a light beer and a strong beer, all made in house, filtered and served in 330 ml, 400 ml or 1 litre steins. Prices range from 50 to 90 rubles ($1.50 to $3.00) for a small 330 ml glass up to 250 rubles ($7.50) for a full litre stein. They even had Bud and Lowenbrau as guest taps. We passed on any food (who knows how long that might’ve taken) and ventured out to find Bar Draft, number 2 on my list.
Bar Draft, it turned out, was virtually next door, but alas, was no longer a brewpub. They had an interesting list of international beers on tap: Bombardier, Guinness, Erdinger Weissbier, Blanche de Brussels, Harp, Spaten, Timmermans, Bernard & Kestritser. Not a bad list, but we were after locally made brews. The beer snack menu was somewhat comical, featuring Dried Sea Roach and Pickled Pork Ears and more Russian delights. They have a small street level bar, lots of light and surrounded by gardens. Downstairs is a larger, rambling bar, no doubt the evening hangout, offering music by a DJ and a varied food menu.
Time being of the essence, we consulted our maps and made a dash for the seafront, where the last brewpub was listed to be and where we were to meet Tim for lunch. It was a beautiful day, many people out walking, checking out the shops and restaurants that follows the seawall along the coast. But for us, address information from the internet did not match reality, and asking for directions led us up the hill and away from the shore at one point, but we eventually ran into a squad of policemen who explained to us where the brewpub was and that it had changed owners and therefore changed its name too, which had likely caused all of our geographical confusion. Indeed. We soon ran into Tim and enjoyed the aroma of beer being brewed as we waited for the pub to open for lunch.
This certainly was the placeI was hoping to find. A large well lit space with huge windows overlooking the sea, a modern, working brewery in the back, visible behind glass walls, extensive food menu and attentive staff, well, at least to start. The young man who was our server greeted us with the brewer’s philosophy, that beer should be served as fresh as possible. To accentuate the point, he placed a small hourglass on the table and explained that all Stargorod beers were unfiltered and unpasteurized and freshest when consumed with in 20 minutes of hitting the table. In fact, as soon as he put down the beers we ordered, he turned over the hourglass, tick tock, better get drinking boys! I wonder if they sell more beer this way? The beers were certainly very good.
Stargorod is a Ukrainian company, with breweries in Lviv, Kharkov and Riga, Latvia. This brewpub in Sochi is their first Russian business venture. All indications are that they are doing well. They opened at 2 pm, and by the time we left, about 90 minutes later, the place was basically packed.
They serve three different beers in three different sizes. Desiatka or ‘Ten’ is their lightest brew, a 3.5% abv Helles style lager (10% Plato, hence the name). It is fresh, clean, crisp, light gold in colour, a malt balanced brew, easy to drink.
The Lager is actually a 5% abv pilsner style, a touch more golden in colour, aromatic, smooth, balanced with a hint of hop bitterness, long and dry.
The Chornoye or ‘Black’ is their version of a German dunkle style, 5.5% abv, dark, malt forward, roasty, toasty, rich with some malt sweetness, hints of chocolate, coffee, caramel, complex malts at play, medium dry finish.
All of the beers went quite well with the Brewer’s Plate we ordered to share: chicken wings, pork ribs, fried bread, sausages, house potatoes, breaded cheese. What’s not to like? I wish we had more time to explore the amazing menu though. On offer was a variety of fish dishes, pork done several ways, a multitude of soups (excellent borscht, like mom used to make!), salads, breads, house made sausages, grilled vegetables, desserts – a veritable smorgasbord of local cuisine and Stargorod restaurant standards. I’m so glad we saved the best for last, it really was well worth seeking out. We scored some T-shirts (although the selection was humorously low-brow) and a couple of unique growlers (which Tim had quite a time getting back to Adler, as no glass or alcohol was permitted on the trains).
But like the hourglass on the table, our time had run out. We raced back up the hill, away from the sea, through the city’s downtown to the train station. And yes, we made it back to work on time.