When we think of Russian drinking customs, we like to envision steely-eyed, furry-hatted folk guzzling vodka with silent partners, grim determination, and maybe a pickle. That image has a certain nihilistic charm. It's less romantic to acknowledge that too many of these sad bastards wind up taking fatal snowbank naps on the walk home from the vodka shop, and downright depressing to consider what can happen to anyone in the orbit of those who opt to drive.
The World Health Organization says one in five men in Russia and neighboring countries die from "alcohol-related causes." Jesus Christ! The vodka problem is super real and hard to joke about. The Russian booze situation is so dire that beer is widely regarded as a sort of methadone to vodka's heroin, a marginally lesser evil that at least gives users a fighting chance. In fact, Russia is such a hard-drinking country that brewski wasn't even considered alcohol, from a regulatory standpoint, until 2013; it had previously been classified as a regular foodstuff, like beets and soda pop. So, in honor of the Sochi Olympics and fighting chances, let's make fun of Russian beer!
The biggest Russian brewer is St. Petersburg's Baltika (owned by Carlsberg), which is so big that all eight of the Russian beers I could get my hands on are Baltika products. They're ranked below.
1. Baltika Grade 9 Extra Lager, 8% alcohol by volume
Wait. Extra what? Lager means "store" in German. Does that mean my beer is extra aged? Extrajudicial? Extraterrestrial? Maybe it's extra-eme, in the meaninglessly faux-aggressive Mountain Dew sense? Probably just extra alcohol, I guess. Phew!
This pale-yellow overachiever smells like toasty malt without any of the sour skunkiness that you're going to be tired of reading about before we hit the bottom of our list. Baltika Grade 9 is good beer: fruity and a touch boozy, like decent brandy, with a little bit of herbal action providing the only hint of hops in this tasting.
2. Baltika 6 Porter, 7% ABV
This one pours black with a thin head of tiny tan bubbles, and the whole thing looks pretty damn good, though the smell is disconcertingly mild for a porter. It tastes unfamiliar but vaguely pleasant, like a decent version of an obscure red wine from some unpronounceable Austrian grape that tastes like moldy cherries but that you somehow get talked into liking. There's some cheap sweet chocolate in there, too.
3. Arsenalnoye Extra Lager, 7% ABV
This alcoholic oddity doesn't resemble standard beer in any obvious way; I wouldn't have argued if you'd told me it was cider or maybe a cider-beer hybrid. It tastes like raw, fruity malt and apple vinegar, with very little suggestion of grain and no hop character whatsoever. But it's refreshing and light for its high-side ABV, and someone's gotta take the bronze, so here we are.
4. Baltika 7 Export Lager, 5.4% ABV
This makes a rough first impression. Balty 7 smells yeasty, fruity, and slightly sour, all in bad ways. You know how sometimes shitty pizza chains turn the edge of the crust into an ungodly ring of detachable sadsnacks, like mozzarella sticks or garlic knots or cinnamon buns or whatever the fuck? This beer smells like they made one of those filled with Keystone-flavored Jell-o.