- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 15, 2017

MOSCOW | Pint by frothy pint, a hoppy revolution is brewing in Russia.

This new generation of craft brewers began sprouting in the vodka capital of the world as foreign beers became too expensive, Western economic sanctions began to bite, and beer fans sought alternatives to mass-produced lagers. From juicy IPAs to velvety stouts and lip-smacking sours, beers served at breweries that opened in recent years in cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg offer visitors and locals alike the styles popularized in the last two decades by the craft beer boom in the U.S. and Europe.

Many breweries started after the currency collapse of 2014, when imported beer prices skyrocketed and supply fell.

“There was almost nothing being brought from outside,” said Alex Korobkov, co-owner of the Zagovor brewery and the RULE Taproom in central Moscow. “So people decided to brew something they had tried outside of Russia.”

Mr. Korobkov and a group of friends started Zagovor — which translates to “Conspiracy” in Russian — in 2014.

Today, there are over 100 craft breweries in Russia, said Nikita Filippov, co-founder of AF Brew in St. Petersburg, founded in 2012 and one of the craft beer pioneers in Russia. But Mr. Filippov said that only around two dozen breweries have their own production capacities or long-term contractual base.

“If nothing dramatic happens in the Russian economics, hops and malt import policies or beer restriction legislation, the future for craft beer in Russia is promising,” said Mr. Filippov.

All ingredients have to be imported — hops from the U.S. or Germany, grains from several European countries — and there are only a few facilities with the necessary equipment that serve as contract brewers.

Craft beer still represents a tiny segment of the beer market in Russia — around 1 percent, according to Dmitry Drobyshevsky, who runs the Russian beer trade news site Profibeer and analyzes the market. Mr. Drobyshevsky said the market for Russia is expanding beyond its borders to Europe and China.

“The Russian brewery Jaws started selling beer in China in May,” he said. “Russian bars are starting to appear there too.”

Although Russians are heavy consumers of alcohol generally, ranking fourth in per capita annual consumption in 2014 according to the U.N.’s World Health Organization, it does not rate so high when it comes to beer. Russia doesn’t even crack the top 25 in per capita beer drinking, according to international rankings.

The surge in Russian craft beer is perfectly timed for the expected tourism bonanza when the country hosts the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Hundreds of thousands of foreign fans, many of them from the U.S. and Western Europe, will visit the 11 host cities.

And few things pair better with beer than soccer.

“They will find a country which is [a] million miles away from old stereotypes about Russia. They will find people who don’t have vodka with caviar [at] every meal but have the offer and knowledge in fine foods, fine spirits and craft beers,” said Mr. Filippov. “They will be greatly welcomed to our country by a community of craft beer brewers and drinkers.”

Beer continues to make inroads with Russians long identified with their love of vodka. Russians are among the world’s biggest drinkers of alcohol, but beer sales, which grew rapidly after 2000 on the back of investment from international players, have tumbled since 2008 when the government began taking steps to curb drinking, such as raising taxes and limiting sales, the Reuters news agency reported.

In a sign foreign brewers are still betting on a brew rebound here, Belgian-American industry giant Anheuser-Busch InBev and Turkey’s Anadolu Efes have agreed to merge their operations in Russia and Ukraine in an attempt to strengthen their position in a declining market.

AB InBev, the world’s largest brewer and home to brands including Budweiser and Stella Artois, announced the nonbinding deal last week while not releasing any financial terms.

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