War-Torn Ukraine's Craft Beer Makers Defy the Odds

Ukraine Travel
by Dan Peleschuk Sep 11, 2015

LVIV, Ukraine — Massive financial loans and American military trainers may be some of the most talked-about Western imports to Ukraine lately.

But that’s just in the headlines. These days, gourmet burger bars, stylish barber shops and fixed-gear bicycles are also becoming fixtures in major cities as the former Soviet republic turns increasingly west.

Now another trend all the cool kids can get behind: craft beer.

Ukraine already loves its beer. But in the past year or two, industry experts say, craft brewing has slowly started taking root, part of a broader new wave of Western-inspired gastronomy.

It’s not unusual to find urban, educated 20-somethings kicking back pints of cloudy, unfiltered local beers on Friday nights at bars here that seem straight out of Brooklyn or Seattle.

Small breweries are hoping to break into a market dominated by a handful of giants and shift local taste buds away from bland, mass-produced lagers.

The government isn’t making it easy by imposing frustrating regulations on the industry. But brewers are still determined to spark the kind of appreciation for quality beer that’s become popular in the United States.

“I have no doubt that what’s happening now in the US will happen here,” said Yuri Zastavny, co-owner of the “Pravda” Beer Theater here in western Ukraine’s largest city.

Up and coming

In the US, craft beer accounts for 18 percent of production. Ukraine is still far behind — it’s less than 1 percent of the local market.

But fans say it’s just the beginning of something beautiful.

Beer culture in Ukraine is steadily gaining momentum, according to the Craft Brewers’ Guild, spawning growing hoards of experts, enthusiasts and specialty pubs. The US Brewers Association defines craft beer in terms of smaller volume, smaller ownership and certain types of ingredients. But as far as Ukrainian brewers are concerned, any local, independent beer that’s brewed with care fits the bill.

The country is now home to around 200 small breweries, with the capital of Kyiv, Lviv and the southeastern city of Dnipropetrovsk being key hubs.

Lviv, once part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, was historically a hotspot for brewing. The hometown brand, Lvivske, was founded in the 18th century and has since grown to become one of Ukraine’s largest producers.

Many say the mass production led to a deterioration in quality, which is why local brewers say Ukrainians are curious to try new, tastier varieties.

“After a person tries ‘live’ [unpasteurized] beer for the first time, they won’t want to drink beer from the major producers,” says Nazar Zhyvak, who runs Tipsy Lion, a Lviv-based microbrewery that produces about 20 tons of beer per month.

Changing minds

Still, gourmet beer can be a tough sell in a cash-strapped country where mass-produced local beers are pretty cheap — and their flavor safe enough to satisfy most casual drinkers.

Tangy Belgian tripels, for example, aren’t exactly commonplace here.

What’s more, says Zastavny, the “Pravda” Beer Theater co-owner, most locals are still misinformed about the virtues of quality beer and how it’s made.

“There is this misconception in the minds of Ukrainians that good, fresh beer must go bad quickly, which is both funny and sad,” he said, adding that big brewers help perpetuate such misbeliefs.

Zastavny’s brewery, an imposing, five-story building on the Old Town square, has enlisted a helping hand from the West: wunderkind Cory McGuinness, their 27-year-old chief brewer from Portland, Oregon.

With experience in the US and a diploma in brewing technology, McGuinness is hoping to turn the local crowd onto everything from flavorful, Belgian-style brews to bitter IPAs.

Like some of its American counterparts, “Pravda” brews beers with style, giving each run a quirky theme and custom-designed label. For instance, its “Frau Ribbentrop” wheat beer — with coriander and orange peel — features a stern-looking German Chancellor Angela Merkel in purple military dress. Its stout, “Obama Hoped,” has the US president on a dollar-bill-style label, along with beer-lover Homer Simpson.

But that’s only part of the marketing strategy.

“It’s a lot about word of mouth,” McGuinness said. “You have to have that one friend who’s cool [to introduce you to craft beer], or you have to have someone who’s a little bit more adventurous.”

While local demand is gradually rising, so are official hurdles for brewers.

Beer-lovers have panned a raft of new regulations on the industry, the most damaging of which for microbreweries is an expensive wholesale license.

Supporters of the new law, which also restricts advertising and sales, say it’s aimed at cracking down on alcohol abuse. But Zastavny and Zhyvak say the new fee unfairly targets them — the little guys. They’ll end up paying the same amount for the license — roughly $22,600 per year — as the largest beer makers do.

While “Pravda” Beer Theater would suffer financially, smaller ones like Tipsy Lion would most likely have to close. Some already have.

“No one’s asking the state for any low-percentage loans or some kind of tax breaks,” said Zhyvak, of Tipsy Lion. “Just leave things the way they are, and don’t interfere.”

There is some hope for the boutique producers.

Brewers and enthusiasts have banded together to petition officials for legislative changes that would either significantly lower the fee for small brewers, or scrap it altogether. Parliament is currently considering those proposals. It’s unclear exactly when — or whether — they’ll vote on them.

In the meantime, Zastavny is staying positive, planning for the future, and perhaps even collecting some inspiration for his newest brew.

“Maybe we’ll make a beer devoted to that ugly initiative,” he says.

By Dan Peleschuk, GlobalPost
This article is syndicated from GlobalPost.

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