Around 1800, the Russian czar realized the obvious when it came to Russian America (then Alaska): it's impossible to grow food there. To solve this problem, the Russia-America Company sailed south in search of fertile soil and a temperate climate. What would become Washington and Oregon were too cold and wet, but the Russians stopped to plant flags there just in case. Then, in 1809 or so, Russia-America Company official Ivan Kuskov explored a river no European had ever traversed. Venturing inland, Kuskov discovered just what Russian America needed. In 1812 he founded Fort Ross, and for the next 30 years, the Russian Empire extended from the gates of Warsaw to the virgin wilderness that would one day become Santa Rosa.
Today we call the river Kuskov navigated the Russian River, and in Santa Rosa, the Russian River Brewing Company produces some of the world's finest beer. As a history nerd and beer lover, I wondered about the beer in Russia. Was RRBC living up to the beer produced by its namesake country, or were Russian craft brewers playing catch-up with the West?
To find answers, on May Day I flew to Moscow with one goal in mind: to drink copious amounts of beer. The trip was a success, and I am now ready to present the results of my painstaking, inebriated research. What follows are seven Russian beers, one for each day of my trip abroad.
Thursday, May 3
Beer: IPA v.2
Brewery: Wolf's Brewery
ABV: 5.9 percent
On my first full day in the Russian capital, I explored GUM, the famed shopping mall just off Red Square. On the first floor, I browsed the aisles of Russia's most luxurious grocery store, Gastronom No. 1. With bottled beers left and right, I faced a hoppy dilemma. I purchased Wolf's Brewery IPA v.2, the first of three IPAs I would drink during my trip. That afternoon, the beer chilled in my hotel room's mini-fridge as I continued my adventure throughout the city.
The beer was Siberia-cold when I returned late that evening after witnessing the Victory Day parade practice. And before you ask, of course I took a selfie in front of an SS-29 mobile ICBM missile launcher. Popping the top (my hotel room had a bottle opener bolted to the wall above the bathroom sink—did Putin know I was coming?), I sat back and indulged in the great American tradition of drinking while watching Netflix—but in a foreign country.
The beer was a pleasantly bitter IPA, but a little light on the tongue. Not much going on with the flavor. I wondered how far the beer had evolved since v.1. The new version had to be better, right? Overall, it was a standard but inoffensive IPA, an excellent way to end a long, enjoyable day.
Verdict: Pliny Lite, not coming soon to a brewpub near you.
- WEST IS BEST While American beer is generally superior to Russian brews, there are a few worth seeking out.
Friday, May 4
Beer: American Style IPA
Brewery: Jaws Brewery
ABV: 7 percent
I battled jet lag during my second full day in Moscow. After waking up from an afternoon nap, I set off for the Museum of the Great Patriotic War. Within the immense museum are many solemn exhibits detailing the Soviet Union's role in defeating Nazi Germany: a gallery of books containing the names of the 25 million Soviet war dead, an impeccably detailed, life-size recreation of the Battle of Berlin and multiple murals that capture the horror of war from the perspective of soldiers and civilians alike. By the time I left the museum, I needed a beer and some traditional Russian cuisine.
On the menu that night were pelmeni (the best Russian food to pair with beer!) at Lepim I Varim. A waitress wearing a T-shirt that proclaimed "Make Pelmeni Great Again!" rang up my order. The fresh, piping-hot lamb and cilantro-stuffed dumplings arrived at my table less than five minutes later.
Accompanying this excellent meal was an American Style IPA courtesy of Jaws Brewery. The beer caught my eye for the psychedelic design on the bottle. As you'll see again with the next beer, I'm a sucker for flashy labels. Unfortunately, the beer did not live up to its counter-culture advertising. Again, there just wasn't a lot going on with the taste. Light on the bitterness, not much mouthfeel, not much anything. But it was a good beer to pair with pelmeni, as the flavor, what there was of it, didn't overpower the dumplings. The only surprise was that the taste didn't suggest anything near 7 percent ABV. However, I didn't doubt that fact an hour later when I nearly dozed off during the metro ride back to my hotel. Jet lag and alcohol made for a sleepy combination.
Verdict: The beer is a square in hippie's clothing. Also, I'm a lightweight.