war on the rocks

A Month Without Beer: Dispatches From the Kremlin

November 3, 2015

Earlier in the fall, sometime in the middle of September, I came home laden with a few plastic bottles of semi-local lagers poured fresh from the tap at my local supermarket. I may have mentioned before that finding high-quality beer in Moscow is not as easy as in Western cities, so while my lagers were fresh, they were definitely not of the caliber I’ve grown accustomed to in the United States.

My girlfriend and I cuddled up on the couch to watch a movie, me sipping my suds and burping throughout. As the movie finished, I moved to grab the last bottle from the fridge and my girlfriend said, “I bet you can’t live without beer, can you?” Feeling somewhat ashamed that I’d stooped to drinking beer from plastic containers, I retorted that I absolutely could. She laughed and said something along the lines of, “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

I then got to thinking that I probably hadn’t gone a week (let alone a month) without a beer since my first semester of college. That was seven years ago. I then noticed that my paunch had gotten a bit larger since then and touched near my hip to check for the dreaded love handles. To my horror, they were there.

Oktoberfest reaches its powerful, malty, “lager-ey” arms across several oceans and continents, and despite Western sanctions, not even Moscow is immune to its influence. Every German restaurant in Moscow seems to have Oktoberfest specials from September until January. So, being the contrarian that I am, I decided to stage a month-long protest — not because I am anti-beer (it’s very hard to be anti-beer when your dad runs a brewery, your uncles import Cantillon, Mikkeller, and Drie Fonteinen, and your twin brother manages DC’s Bluejacket Brewery), but because I wanted to see what life would be like in Moscow, which has a rapidly emerging beer scene, without brew!

Sans beer, I naturally began to explore the other options that Moscow has to offer, because when the highest temperature in October is 35 degrees, you need something to keep you warm, right? Over the course of the month, I began to realize that by limiting myself to mostly beer, I missed out on so much. This is especially true in Russia, which has more than just vodka and watery brew.

I was introduced to “pertsovka,” by my friend, Misha, who likes to drink it when it’s cold outside, or when he has a cold. You can buy pertsovka in the stores, but Misha prefers to prepare it on his own. One evening, Misha came over to our place with two bottles of vodka, some garlic, and a whole lot of hot peppers. He cut the peppers and garlic, and then mixed them in with the vodka inside a plastic, gallon-sized water jug. Next, he capped the jug and asked me to shake it for a good five minutes. He then took his turn shaking and handed it back to me to shake some more. By then, the vodka had turned reddish brown and reeked of garlic. We poured our shots and drank to our health. The beverage had about the same effect on me as a tablespoon of wasabi would. I began to sweat, my eyes watered, and I gasped for air. As I sputtered, Misha assured me that I would not be catching cold anytime soon.

Other new drinks over the course of the month included various samogons from “brother nations,” as my friend Volodya put it. Samogon is essentially Russian moonshine, and has a folkloric role in Russian culture. While I can’t be all that certain that these nations feel especially “brotherly” towards Russia, we sampled alcohols made from darn near anything, from nations such as Georgia, Belarus, Hungary, and Romania. My favorites were samogons made from grapes, apricots, various grasses, and plums. Sadly, after our sampling session, I was a bit too far gone to denote which samagon came from which brother nation, so do not look here for more information.

Although I was privy to several new drinking experiences, I found that my friends and colleagues all seemed to agree on one spirit: cognac. While many tend to see Russia as “Vodkaland,” I would make the argument that the Russians I know like cognac even more. Just as it is an indisputable fact in Russia that the best wine comes from Georgia, Russians also insist that the best cognac comes from Armenia, (though the Armenian cognac I tried tasted a bit like laundry detergent). It’s also important to remember that, despite nearly the entire country calling it cognac, it’s not technically cognac, since it’s not from France. Interestingly, this fact could prevent Armenian accession to the EU.

Just as whiskey is the drunken grandson of beer, cognac is the drunken granddaughter of wine, and it pairs particularly well with any kind of food. The better Russian cognacs are semi-sweet and finish with a lightly toasted caramel flavor, making them very pleasant, especially in cold weather. The only trouble with cognac is that a romantic evening cooking dinner and watching a movie can easily end up as one spent under a freezing shower and on the couch for the remainder of the night. Such events may or may not be the reason I’m looking forward to a glass of pilsner from 1516 brewery here in Moscow. Nonetheless, I definitely have no regrets from kindling new appreciation for different kinds of libations.

During “Okt ’no’ beerfest,” I started to take note of the people who drink beer in Moscow and realized that beer is still widely regarded as a drink for those of lower stock. Beer is generally seen as something that “gopniki” drink on the streets. In my experience, gopiniki are generally very loud, jumpsuit-wearing, seemingly unemployed men who can often be seen near street corners or underpasses crushing cans of brew and harassing local women.

The negative view of beer also has to do with the infamous quality of Russian suds. Imagine if, for seventy years, all you had to drink was something like “Baltika” or “Zhiguli” (the only beer that was widely available during the Soviet period) — you might not like beer so much. With the local beer scene booming, I expect the view of beer on the whole to change, just like everything seems to change every day here in Moscow. That being said, I won’t be turning down any cognac or apricot samagon anymore, and am definitely enjoying pulling my belt (a lot) tighter when I get dressed every day, which is nice.

With all of that behind me, though, I’ve done my time! It’s November, which means I am off to the brewpub. From Moscow, Za Strovya.

 

Max Shelton is an American currently living, working, and drinking in Moscow, Russia. In his spare time (while not drinking), he enjoys writing, reading, and watching Better Call Saul. He finished his MA dissertation at Middlebury College in Russian about American intervention in the Russian Civil War between 1917-1922.

 

Photo credit: Bart Everson