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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
But come drinking time the fruitiness beats back the yeast and the skunk to deliver a serviceable beer that tastes a little like grape soda. That won't get you on the medal stand, but it won't get you dumped straight down the drain, either.
The straw-yellow juice comes in a clear glass bottle featuring aspirationally upward-tilting type that suggests a Russian version of Miller High Life. That bodes gross.
The Cooler smells like slightly skunked cream, the sort you sniff thrice but use anyway and wind up none the worse for it. Which is to say it smells like an unpleasant thing that won't kill you.
It tastes like creamy lemon initially, but then the skunk shows up something fierce on the aftertaste. This would be a reasonable one to chug, because it doesn't taste so bad other than the finish: take a big swig, and kick the endgame down the road as far as possible.
I got a cat the other day. Cats are the best! I even like it when she sits on my head at night, because that's adorable, and it's also what qualifies me to declare that Nevskoye Imperial tastes like lemony cat fur.
Which Russians have any use for non-alcoholic beer? Mid-performance ice dancers? On-duty school bus drivers? Women in active labor? Whoever these "drinkers" are, Baltika is clearly out to punish their cowardice.
Baltika Premo is far more sour than many craft beers that are marketed as such; there's also an artificial sweetness on the finish, which makes it interesting in the same way that biting off a mime's big toe, dipping it in buffalo sauce, and using it to write, "What an uncommon thing I just did" across his forehead would be interesting. You know what I mean? What I mean is, this stuff sucks.
You ever squeeze a brown lemon into French onion soup powder reconstituted with tap water from an old mill town where the river runs different colors at different times of the day depending on what shade of highly flammable stretchy mitten the yarnworks is pumping out? The label on this one says "Mild Taste, High Quality," but the flavor will make you say that weird thing about the soup and the mitten.
These were easier to rank than I thought they'd be. It turns out that every Russian beer is indeed unhappy in its own way. But most of them have at least one unique component, and they're cheap (about $2 per 16.9-ounce bottle). They tend to get worse as the alcohol content decreases, which could say something about Russians' commitment to boozing—the drunker it'll get them, the more effort they'll put into its production? Or it could say something about me (via my Russian grandfather) that we don't need to get into right now. Or it could be the preservative effects of alcohol helping out beers that sit on the shelf for quite some time; all the ones I tried were between seven and 11 months old, which is within the year-long freshness window claimed on their labels but still risky business for most styles of beer. But let's not quibble with the cause and instead celebrate the effect: I recommend you try the strongest Russian beer you can find. Once.
Will Gordon loves life and tolerates dissent. He lives in Cambridge, Mass., and has visited all of the other New England states, including, come to think of it, Vermont. Find him on Twitter@WillGordonAgain.