Bishkek-based writer Chris Rickleton's wonderful recent Eurasianet article about the booming domestic beer scene in Kyrgyzstan left me thirsting for more information. Rickleton, a former editor of the Bishkek-based English-language tourism and culture magazine "The Spektator," which was founded by Tom Wellings, was kind enough to answer some follow-up questions that I sent him. Our exchange is below:
1. How did you come about this story?
Wherever I live or travel to, I always make a point of trying local produce, be it beer, cheese or otherwise. In Kyrgyzstan the cheese situation is pretty dire, but happily, local beers aren't bad at all. Moreover, in the nearly four years I have been here, the number of local brews available at cafes and 'beer stations' like Pinta has grown noticeably. In 2008, it was difficult to find anything besides Russian beer on the shelves in grocery stores and Arpa was practically alone in flying the Kyrgyz flag in Bishkek's cafes. That just isn't the case anymore. I was particularly interested by the rise of microbreweries like "Venskoye" and "Chuiskoye" that have managed to stay in business over the last few years, despite political turbulence and a struggling economy. A lot of the news that comes out of Kyrgyzstan is bad news, so I wanted to do an article on what appeared to be a local success story.
2. Were you able to pinpoint anything specific that helped launch this Kyrgyz microbrew moment?
Microbreweries, like their larger counterparts are still dependent on imports, so I think the sustained presence of these small-scale producers - who brew less than 5 tons of beer per month - would have been unimaginable during the 1990s and early 2000s when Kyrgyzstan's economy was in a real trough, and domestic investment was minimal. Today, despite the fact that the economy is still a long way from being in great shape, the country's WTO membership and trade relationship with China has enabled the brewing industry to import affordable brewing equipment. That said, the smaller-scale breweries are still faced with the problem that their beer doesn't keep for long, so they need clients that will be able to move it quickly. In this sense, the 'microbrew moment' has coincided with the growing popularity of the "пивной магазин", or "beer shop", a spot where you can get a 1-2 litre plastic bottle filled up with draught beer and where they also serve raw fish and Chechel, a type of smoked cheese, which are a strange part of the Soviet drinking culture. It's a business model taken from Russia.
3. How would you describe Kyrgyz drinking culture, in general?
Treading carefully, I would say that Kyrgyzstan is a predominantly Islamic country, so there are many people that don't drink. There are, however, many who do. Based purely on what I have seen in the years I have been here, I would say the biggest "drinking demographic" is men aged between 35 and 55. A lot of younger folks forego drinking until they are older, and some of the elderly kick the habit and become more traditional, perhaps reserving their drinking for vodka toasts at weddings and funerals. As concerns draught beer, this is mainly popular in the cities. If you are a woman or a man with long hair you will get it served to you in a glass with a straw, which has always been a source of amusement for me. In Kyrgyzstan's poverty-stricken regions, alcoholic drinks that provide more "bang for your buck" tend to dominate. This means vodka and cognac, with the strong, cheap, domestically brewed "наше пиво", or "our beer", often used as a chaser.
4. Can you give us some tasting notes on the domestically-brewed beer you drank for this story?
Haha, I'd dreaded this question. I'll try and give you the lo-down without resorting to talk of 'noses', 'palettes' and cinnamon aftertastes. The local beers that you can get "на разлив", or on draught, differ significantly from one another. Arpa is a, hoppy, amber-coloured and distinctly bitter brew, which the drinker will either take to immediately or dismiss out of hand. Personally, I am a fan, although if you like beers like Carlsberg, Miller and Budweiser it is unlikely to be your thing. The Kyrgyz boast that due to its lack of additives you can drink a fair amount of Arpa in the course of a night and not wake up the next day with a headache, which I can testify to. Живое or 'alive' beer is also popular, both on draught and in bottles. It is a light, unpasteurized, filtered beer, and has a smooth, clean taste similar to European lagers like Grolsch or Becks. Of the micro-breweries, Venskoye is an unfiltered, slightly tart and very refreshing brew, especially in the summer. My dad, who knows a lot more about beer than I do, said that this was his favourite Kyrgyz beer, although he had to drink it in a cup as he found the color offputting (I won't expand on that). Chuiskoye is a malty, wholesome brew, darker than all the others and best suited to winter consumption, while the southern city of Osh has Akademia, a pleasant, cloudy sort, similar to the Belgian wheat beer Hoegarden in taste, but about half the price. Unfortunately, I am forced to say that it does actually have a cinnamon aftertaste.
5. Finally, how realistic are domestic brewers' hopes of displacing vodka as the Kyrgyz drink of choice?
To a certain extent, this will depend on economics. A half-litre bottle of cheap vodka in Kyrgyzstan runs at around 60 soms ($1.30), which is only slightly more than the cost of domestically produced beer, and cheaper than some of the imported brands such as Heineken. Domestic breweries would like to see Vodka taxed in a way that is proportional to its alcohol content, and complain that the big vodka suppliers have friends in the parliament who prevent this from happening. The country's biggest vodka distillery employs even more people than the country's biggest brewery, so it seems logical that they would have more leverage. As it stands, the growing market for draught beer seems tied to the country's urban middle class. In neighboring Kazakhstan, where incomes have risen much faster, beer consumption per capita is almost twice what it is in Kyrgyzstan, yet still trails vodka.
Overall, I would say the breweries' best chance is with the younger segment of the market, as they seem to be less fond of vodka and more fond of beer than their parents. In Bishkek and even Osh (where the population is more religiously conservative), drinking beer in cafes is increasingly seen as a good way for young men and women to socialize, while passing around a bottle of the high-alcohol "наше пиво" offers youths a slower way to get drunk in the countryside. Long-term, brewers will have to do battle with a penny-thrifty Soviet idiom that says "Beer without Vodka = money to the wind". They will be hoping that over time society moves away from this destructive attitude to alcohol, but they shouldn't hold their breath just yet.