How the Soviets helped America’s craft beer revolution

November 9, 2018

A Russian pagan republic championed hops before microbreweries ran mainstream now it wants to be back on the global beer map, The Calvert Journal reports

Cheboksary is merely a night train ride away from Russias capital but it could be on another planet. By 10 am the temperature is already approaching the high twenties, its trees are decorated with ribbons and animal bones, and store windows are painted with intricate geometric designs.

The city is the capital of the Chuvashia Republic, a place that has for centuries defied Russian Christian hegemony and where locals still conduct colorful pagan rites and follow a pantheon of divinities.

The republic is just one of the worlds oldest beer-producing regions, with a tradition of harvesting hops and drinking beer as part of their religious worship.

Now, in a bid to return to its former glory as a Soviet-era hop superpower, local scientists and brewers are hoping that the furor for microbreweries springing up from Moscow and St Petersburg could once again bring investment to Chuvashs farms.

Celebrations
Celebrations in Cheboksary, Russias pagan heartland. Illustration: Ivan Mikhailov

Beer revolution

While American brewers experimenting with hops in the 1970 s have been credited with kickstarting the global craft brew revolution, few people know that the movement might not have been possible without scientists working in Chuvash during Soviet times.

Thanks to its historic love of beer and its unique microclimate steep terrains and hot summers Chuvashia was the obvious location to produce beer to slake the thirst of the industrial workers across the USSR, rapidly transforming the Republic into a hop-growing superpower.

By the late 1980 s, local sovkhozes ( country farms) were producing 95% of all hops for the Soviet Unions beer. Known locally as Chuvashias green gold, hops were so ubiquitous they appeared in everything from ice-cream to shampoo.

Hop-farming promptly became a prestigious scientific discipline which demanded its own bureaucratic hierarchy. The first Soviet hop research institute was established just outside Cheboksary.

One of the regions signature products the flavoursome Serebryanka subsequently inspired scientists at the University of Oregon to breed Cascade, a citrus-flavoured hop which has now become popular with craft brewers.

Sampling
Sampling todays local brews. Photo: Ivan Mikhailov/ Calvert Journal

Post Soviet deterioration

But the glory days werent to last. When the USSR collapsed in the early 1990 s, Chuvashias hop empire followed suit, unable to compete with the international brew giants inundating the Russian marketplace and sweeping away local factories.

In the 1980 s there were 35,000 acres of hop fields in Chuvashia, today that number is down to simply 200. Much of the remaining crop is appeared after by the Chuvash Hop Institute, which sees the resurgence of artisanal breweries as an opportunity to promote the region as a quality supplier of hops.

The institutes director, Andrey Fadeev, is optimistic. The whole world is going crazy about aromatic hops. We cant lose this opportunity, he says.

Hed like some of “the worlds biggest” beer factories inthe Urals and Siberia to consider Chuvashia as a viable national alternative to European suppliers.

Andrey
Andrey Fadeev in his hop fields. Photo: Ivan Mikhailov/ Calvert Journal

The hop institute has now been restored some of the machines in its brewery and is constructing an alliance with a brand-new factory in Tsvilisk to process delicate raw hops into long-lasting pellets which are more compact and easier to transport.

But it doesnt have a working brewery, and Fadeev concedes that there is a lot more work to be done to restore the region to its former superpower status. We need hundreds of tractors, modern equipment, young folks, he says.

The hop vault

Even if it is not currently attaining brew, hops are still being cultivated and Fadeev offers a tour around one of canadian institutes fields outside of Tsivilsk, a town 20 miles( 32 km) away from Cheboksary.

The harvests are tended to manually by a small group of scientists-cum-farmers, who are mostly women. They study and take care of the plants as the temperatures made the mid-thirties.

Zoya Nikonova is one of the academics who has spent most of her life preserving the legacy of Chuvash hops. We grow hundreds of hops which we bring to Chuvashia from all over the world from New Zealand to Germany, she explains.

Zoya
Zoya Nikonova, a custodian of Chuvash hop riches. Photograph: Ivan Mikhailov/ Calvert Journal

Nikonova compares their work to Svalbards global seed vault in its mission to sustain a wide variety of plants for future generations including the legendary Serebyanka.

The semi-wild breed with clues of blackcurrant hasnt been efficient to grow, Nikonov says, pointing a a row of indiscreet pale-looking stems of a plant that kicked off the craft beer revolution.

As the team at canadian institutes works to preserve the history of the glory days, there are signs around the region that the locals have never forgotten their green gold.

Many are skilled home-brewers and brew is often presented as a gift at bridals and important occasions including Seren, a pagan vacation on which evil spirits are expelled with barrels of alcohol and wild dancing.

A version of such articles first appeared on The Calvert Journal, a guide to the new east

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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