With AIFS, it is customary to make one cultural excursion per week, but this week we are blessed with two! Today’s trip was to the Baltika Brewery, arguably the largest beer factory in Europe even though it was only founded in 1990.
Tours of the brewery are an amazing deal (only 100 rubles per person, or about $3.50), but are somewhat exclusive in that you must be part of a group with an organization. Our tour guide spoke excellent English, and I learned more about beer than I expected I would. Fun fact: did you know that beer wasn’t classified officially as an alcohol in Russia until a few years ago? It was considered more like a soda. Which maybe explains why so many people drink it at like 10am. There was also a campaign to get people to drink more beer in order to combat alcoholism—because beer is less alcoholic than vodka. But now they’ve somewhat realized that isn’t a good idea, and they recently upped the tax on beer by 200%.
I felt like I was behind the scenes on How It’s Made. There are glass walkways up above the factory floor, and the first one we entered, in this cavernous dark warehouse filled with giant silos of something, smelled like beer–everywhere. The kind of sour, the-party-has-ended sort of beer smell, but a good mood setter. We got to see the computers where they control the machines, at least two displays of all the different awards Baltika has won, and all the eclectic presents their factory has received from other factories. Sadly, we were not allowed to take pictures of the actual factory floor, as this is TOP SECRET. My personal favorite was the warehouse, because Russian forklift drivers carrying thousands of pounds of booze seem fond of Tokyo drifting their way to the loading docks.
Towards the end of the tour there was small museum created for Baltika’s 25 anniversary, where hilarious pictures abounded. The main event of the tour was, of course, the tasting. We were seated at tables filled with all of Baltika’s products and given 20 minutes to free-for-all it. Their beers are numbered, 0-9, from lowest alcohol content to highest. 0, obviously, is the non-alcoholic one, which just tasted like a bad juice. But some of the others were interesting, including “Eve” (or “lady beer,” which has a 5% alcohol content but tastes like sparkling cider), “Old Bobby” (English pub-style ale), and this extra-dry Japanese beer.
After trying something like 10 or 11 types of beer, it was much easier to speak Russian. I’m not savvy enough to tell you any of the types of beer we sampled, be they lagers or ales or whatever. But I can provide you with a WORD OF THE DAY: Пьяный (pi-yan-ii)—drunk. Over dinner, my host mom asked me which were my favorites, and when I told her No.8 and No.4., she promptly told me they didn’t have either of those: they had a No.3 and No.5 and a No.7 and a No.9. But there was definitely a No.8. And No.4 was our guide’s favorite. But perhaps I’m just doomed to never come out of a conversation with my host mom in which I make any sense to her.