December 10, 2008

Beer Baron-less

Well, it’s sad to think that the semester is almost over. Though I do have regrets (not getting enough out of the warmer months, for instance), I would hands down do this crazy adventure all over again. It’s fascinating to think about how far the country has come from Peter the Great’s day–and what it will be like ten years from now. Give Russia (Moscow, anyway) another decade or two and it’ll feel like any other major European city. Sad.

I’m currently in the midst of finishing up papers and presentations, but still wanted to give everyone who’s been devoted to this rarely-updated testament to my day-to-day life here in Petersburg a little “taste” of Russia.

Varieties of Baltika Beer  

Varieties of Baltika Beer

Tuesday we visited the Baltika Factory, the largest beer refinery in Europe. I was surprised at hearing that! When stepped off of the metro stop, we were greeted by the beautiful Russian wilderness. Of course, the air quality wasn’t much better than in the city, but there was just snow and trees and literally nothing else. So I guess if we got stranded, there’d be beer! We took Baltika’s company bus to the factory. I’ve only been to one other distillery and it was close to microbrewery size (Shiner, TX), so this was pretty intense.

While the whole fermentation process is interesting unto itself, the packaging machines were definitely my favorite. I felt like I was in one of the VHS tapes Mr. Postman would bring Mr. Rogers–you know, so you could learn how crayons or tennis shoes were made. Except this was the grown up version, beer-edition. Most of the beer in Russia is bottled in plastic one liter bottles. (According to our guide, this is the most popular size–and if beer is canned, the smallest size is a can at least twice the size of American beer.) Glass is used, but more expensive, so Baltika manufactures its own plastic bottles. This had to be one of the coolest parts of the process to watch–even better than the giant label-maker! (And coming from me that’s saying something.) A small plastic tube goes through a heating lamp then air is blown into the tube, expanding it like a balloon. Then the hot plastic bottles go through a roller coaster-like conveyor system for about 15 minutes. Very cool to watch.

After what seemed like far too much walking, we got to tasting. Baltika, for being such a relatively new company (founded by the Soviet government under another name in 1990), makes pretty decent beer. I especially liked Baltika Numbers 3, 4, and 9. Available at Central Market in Texas if you’re interested. The numbering system is a lot less fool proof than the nonsense we Americans come up with to call our beer.

Of course, I being the dork I am, recently watched a History Channel special on the “History of Beer in America” and have to say that I was a little disappointed by the apparent lack of entrepreneurial leadership in the Baltika’s history. There are no Millers, Pabsts, or Schlitzes. No Beer Barons! While this must be due to the recent popularity of beer in Russia and former Soviet states (exactly what you’re thinking… yes, vodka has been the favored drink for centuries), I wanted to imagine a Russian beer baron existed. He would’ve been a character. All in all, it was the perfect break from paper writing.