Beer Toppling Vodka’s Reign (Washington Post, 10/14/02)


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Beer Toppling Vodka’s Reign (Washington Post, 10/14/02)

From: Miles Townes

Date: 10/14/2002

Time: 1:28:13 PM

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Beer Toppling Vodka’s Reign

New, Better Brews Catch On in Russia, Especially Among Younger People

Russian youths toast during Moscow’s second beer festival in the capital’s Luzhniki stadium. Beer is becoming more and more popular in Russia, replacing traditional vodka. (Sergey Chirikov – AFP/File Photo)

By Peter Baker

Washington Post Foreign Service

Monday, October 14, 2002; Page A18

MOSCOW–The table in the far corner of a bar called Russian Style offered a tableau of Russian style old and new. As they sat down to talk business one afternoon last week, Andrei Gromtsev ordered two shots of vodka, but Sergei Sergeyev had a tall glass of Klinskoye beer.

“I prefer to get a little buzz, but not much,” said Sergeyev, 30, a trader. “I like to eat spicy food and it goes well with beer. It enhances the taste of the food and it’s hard to resist.”

A decade ago, or even a few years ago, passing up vodka for beer would have been unheard of here, but Russia is undergoing another revolution, this one playing out as much in the bars as on the streets. The country famed for its vodka-swilling is turning quite dramatically to pale ales, stouts and their cousins. Consumption of beer per capita has nearly tripled in the last six years. And marketing firms predict sales of beer will outpace sales of vodka this year for the first time in Russia.

“People are switching from stronger drinks to beer,” said Maria Vanifatora, director of the Business Analitica marketing agency’s retail index, which estimates that Russians will spend $6.5 billion on beer this year, compared with $6.3 billion on vodka. “Of course it’s a big change.”

The consequences for Russian self-identity are hard to overestimate. Imagine if the French started drinking more beer than wine. Or the Germans more wine than beer. This is, after all, the nation whose culture is so inextricably linked to vodka that it boasts several vodka museums. Every attempt to limit vodka consumption by decree has failed spectacularly, from the czars and Lenin right up to Mikhail Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol program in the 1980s. Yet what the Kremlin failed to achieve, modern breweries have begun to accomplish.

Historically, vodka has been viewed as a God-given right. Some Russians throw back their first shot of the day with breakfast. On early morning flights, business executives barely wait until takeoff to crack open the bottles. At street kiosks, a bottle can be had for just a couple of bucks. If that’s too pricey, there’s vodka in a can.

While the purchase price has remained low, the cost has remained high. Alcoholism is rampant — and one reason life expectancy for Russian men has fallen below 60 in recent years. Thanks to alcoholic benders, Russia suffers from phenomenally high rates of people drowning, freezing to death and falling from windows.

Traditionalists see vodka through a romantic lens and view the rise of beer as a threat to the Russian soul. “The Russian character, the Russian nature is not changed by this fact,” sniffed Nikolai Krivomazov, editor of Russian Vodka magazine. “Strong character, strong drink. That’s the Russian character.”

Beer consumption has been growing strongly since 1996, when the average Russian drank about four gallons, compared with 11 gallons last year, according to Business Analitica. While that is still just one-fourth of the average beer consumption in the Czech Republic, the world leader, it has shot past vodka, which has declined since 1999 from 4.1 gallons per capita to 3.8 gallons. The beer industry projects that consumption of its products will rise to 18.5 gallons per capita within five years, not far off the U.S. average of 22.3 gallons.

In terms of revenue, the sales figures will catch up with consumption this year, with beer growing by 12 percent to finally pass vodka, although some vodka makers said that does not reflect the full picture because many Russians drink alcohol that is made and sold illegally.

In the past, there was little choice. Russian beer tasted terrible and imports were hard to come by. Today Russian companies produce far better brews, such as Klinskoye and Baltika, and foreign brands are widely available. A microbrewery called Tinkoff opened here last year with a half-dozen different brews, not to mention Russian variations — beer mixed with white wine, champagne, tequila or soft drinks.

“People always liked beer here, but now we have a lot of diversity, a lot more brands,” said Oleg Albayev, 42, director of a small bar that has Klinskoye on tap and everything from Heineken and Bavaria to Miller Genuine Draft and Corona Extra in bottles. “There’s better quality and more competition.”

At a pool hall just down the block, bartender Yulia Malokhmetova figured she sells three times as much beer as hard liquor. “Our parents’ generation grew up drinking vodka and our generation is growing up drinking beer,” said Malokhmetova, 20. “Beer is more fashionable. It’s got more of a youthful image.”

Proving the point was Katya Legostayeva, 17, perched on a bar stool and nursing a cold one, seemingly oblivious to the legal drinking age of 18. “Beer is considered accepted now,” she said. “All young people drink it.” As for her mother, who prefers cognac, she added, “She should be happy about it. She wouldn’t want to have a daughter who drinks vodka.”

Yet while some consider the shift to a softer alcoholic beverage an improvement, many worry that it has only transformed the alcohol problem rather than eased it. Vodka consumption has fallen somewhat, but not at the rate that beer consumption has risen. To many Russians, beer is seen as nothing more than a soft drink; teenagers regularly walk down streets or in and out of subway stations in the middle of the day, bottle in hand.

Alcoholism clinics already are feeling the impact. “The new trend is that we’re beginning to have more and more younger patients,” said Yevgeny Yankin, head of the narcology and psychiatry department at the Russian University of Peoples’ Friendship.

Critics including Yankin point the finger at glitzy Western-style advertising that dominates Russian television with images of slim, stylish young men and women quaffing beer at the beach. Beer producers spend $400 million a year on television commercials, nearly a quarter of all television advertising.

Worried lawmakers, egged on by the vodka industry, which is prohibited from advertising on television, have moved to rein in the breweries. The State Duma, the lower house of parliament, voted 231 to 24 last month to ban beer ads from prime-time television.

The legislation, which must still survive another vote and be passed by the upper house of parliament before being sent to President Vladimir Putin, would also prohibit beer makers from using famous actors or athletes to promote their products, or any image of people or animals. Ads would not be allowed to target minors, suggest that drinking beer quenches thirst or promote the idea that beer raises social status. Additionally, beer billboards would be prohibited within 100 yards of schools, churches and hospitals.

Beer makers complain that they are being unfairly targeted and insist that assertions of a growing problem among the young are invented by the vodka manufacturers. The beer industry maintains that its growth should be viewed positively because beer consumption “is healthier” and “the only way to cut consumption of absolute alcohol,” as Baltika put it.

Far harder to measure, or judge, could be the intangible effects of the changing drinking patterns. In a country that believes its founding father chose the Orthodox religion because it was more permissive toward alcohol, the eclipse of vodka still remains hard to imagine.

“The Russian soul is a mystery,” said Alexander Boyarkov, 52, who has owned Russian Style bar since the end of communism in 1991. “That’s how we drink. If you’ve got a problem, you drink. If you’re happy, you drink. If you go on a picnic, you drink. That’s how we have fun. But now in a Western market economy, we don’t have as much time. Everybody’s too busy and you can’t drink as much.”

© 2002 The Washington Post Company

Last changed: October 14, 2002

Beer Toppling Vodka’s Reign (Washington Post, 10/14/02)
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