When East met West in no small quantity....

A recent encounter with an old friend brought  back a number of memories. Some good, and some it has to be said, not quite so good!

Needless to say this was not a friend of the human kind,  but an acquaintance that I once went to fairly considerable lengths to acquire in my role as a beer buyer.

The beers from the old Soviet Union had always held  a certain amount of curiosity and intrigue for the UK beer enthusiast,  perhaps because we had had such little access to them in the past.  So, back in 2002, the opportunity arose to sell a number of them for the first time.

Due to a new company carrying out a groupage service in St. Petersberg  parcels of these rarely seen  beers  could be brought to the UK in a cost effective manner.  This was an exciting prospect,  but one also tinged with a certain amount of apprehension...

Firstly,  having never dealt with the company before I was unsure of their credibility and reliability. They had no track record as such, and until you actually land the stock in the shop, there always remains nagging doubts.  As it turned out the company,  Neva Ltd. ( who sadly no longer exist ) did  an excellent job.

Secondly,  as the beers had been collected directly from the breweries they still bore the original Cyrillic  labels of the domestic market. No  export  labels had been produced for UK sales ,  bar some small import stickers to satisfy Trading Standards, so the labels were largely unintelligible.

Thirdly,  compared to pasteurised beers produced in the West the ' best before' dates seemed perilously short, some as little as  six months!  When I queried this with the Importers they pointed out that the old Communist philosophy had been to keep the dates short to encourage the populace to drink up on patriotic health grounds!  ( a useful sales method! )  It had little or nothing to do with the products shelf life.   


Whilst these were all concerns perhaps the main one was the number of beers to be listed.  Rarely seen  beers from the Baltika  range and a selection from  Bochkarev,  Kalinkin,  and  Stepan Razin  meant the list had climbed to sixteen beers!  If they failed to capture the imagination of our customers,  or the quality did not live up to expectations, we could be in trouble, and I would have to explain an ambitious disaster!

The fact that there was a chance to buy three 'porter style'  beers alone from Russia ( Afanasy, Stepan Razin and Baltika No.7 ) I hoped would also find appeal, and as unforeseen events would prove for the Stepan Razin brewery at least, this would become a poignant moment. 

With a history stretching back to 1795 its new owners Heineken  would later decide to close the brewery in St. Petersberg ( in 2004 ) and transfer production to Bochkarev. This then would become one of the last chances  for UK consumers to taste the brew from its true home.

So a recent encounter with one of those original group of beers that were imported - Baltika No. 4 was a welcome ( and reflective ) re-union!

Intriguingly the brewery describes this style as the 'original' and the use of rye within the blend certainly hints to the use of a grain that has a long association with Russian brewing history, most famously as Kvass.

 In terms of flavour the beer has a light caramel accented malt body with a touch of notable sweetness. It is well balanced and nicely made, and certainly rates as one of the more characterful brews to come out of modern day Russia. The rye also gives the beer a distinct aroma akin to freshly toasted crisp bread, and the beer also now sports a stylish new packaging compared to the original export.

As for those original  sixteen beers that were imported back in 2002 ?  Thankfully they sold well, and proved there was indeed a market, and interest enough, to justify the venture . It became a rewarding and educational experience in several ways,  and the gamble to bring something new to our customers had also paid off....and disaster,  ultimately and thankfully.... averted! 


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