Beer Monopoly

 

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Posted May 2012

Russian Roulette

Beer in Russia | When the going gets tough, the tough get going! So you thought. Not in Russia. When the going gets tough, the tough point fingers, place blame, and shake a fist at the government. What a sorry show brewers in Russia have put on these past few years. While beer production continued to decline, brewers knew no better than to quibble over alleged market shares; accuse each other of excessive price promotions and bemoan the fact that the government's prohibitionist policies were taking all the fun out of doing business in this vast country. Perhaps the time has finally arrived for the tough to get going. The combination of Efes and SABMiller certainly looks like a start.

Russia may sit atop vast crude oil reserves. But, really, in Russia nothing flows as freely as booze. Back in the old Soviet days, a half-litre bottle of vodka cost the daily wage of a young doctor. Still, thirsty Russians managed to get legless with metronomic regularity. In 1981, says the World Health Organisation (WHO), recorded adult per capita consumption of alcohol (mind you that's people aged 15 years and older) stood at 14 litres. By 1989 it had dropped to - officially - 7 litres thanks to Mr Gorbachev's draconian sobering-up measures, like cutting vodka production and prohibiting its sale before 2pm.

In retrospect, this drop was purely cosmetic as Russians had turned to other means. They either distilled their own moonshine or resorted to liquids not designed for human consumption, such as floor varnish, methanol, antifreeze, perfume, deodorants or some such. Ask any male Russian over fifty and he will agree: wink, wink. Talk to his wife and she will snort that in the old days at least there was a deposit on the vodka bottles. While him-indoors slept it off, she would take the empties back to the shop and buy bread for their children from the deposit collected. That's how it was, she'd say: the men would drink and the families would eat. No irony in that, by the way.

I personally don't remember those long gone days. What I can say with some authority, though, is that very little seems to have changed. When I travelled across southern Russia at the end of April this year - all 2,800 km from Astana in Kazakhstan to Moscow by train - the buffet cars' staff presented nothing as lovingly as their alcohol bottles. At every station we stopped - 48 in all - they had set up kiosks on the platform which sold travellers' wares consisting of ... yep, cigarettes, crisps and booze. Street vendors who were offering an amazing array of Chinese tack and kitsch from their carts invariably had a shopping bag tucked away from which lurked several 2.5 litre plastic beer bottles.

Boozing must be the Russians' favourite past-time. In some god-forsaken small town somewhere in southern Russia my train rode past a grey block of flats. The facade was festering and the broken windows had been stuffed with cardboard. Two young girls in skimpy dresses sashayed along the district heating pipe, whose insulation was flaking off. A few metres away, amongst debris of all kinds, two middle-aged men were rolling in a ditch, cheerfully waving their half-empty vodka bottles in a silent hello to my train. In my notes from this trip I found this entry: "Getting drunk while rolling in the grass is sad. Getting drunk while rolling on splinters of glass and other household rubbish - now that's truly sordid."
 

Botox, booze and bling

Alcohol seems to be written so deeply into Russian culture that in Moscow's main tourist drag, the pedestrian Old Arbat Street, hordes of teenagers, who were too young to legally buy alcohol, still thought nothing of ambling along early in the morning, sipping beer out of bottles, and giving the finger to the law which has made drinking alcohol in public illegal as of this year. Moscow must be the home of thousands of leggy blondes, all seemingly obsessed with money, plastic surgery and jewellery. Come to think of it, the six-foot tall "stick insects" I noticed in the restaurants were rather keen on following Kate Moss' alleged diet of vodka and cigarettes. Even the several gaggles of ultra-fashionista bridesmaids I saw on Red Square did not feel at all embarrassed as I watched them staggering about in their ridiculously high heels, having been thrown off kilter by the bottle of bubbly in their Hermes handbags.

Russians probably consider any kind of booze that is not vodka just another type of soft drink. When in my best kill-joy-manner I asked three beefy men in their thirties at a restaurant if they did not think that half a litre of Johnnie Walker Red Label each to go with their dinner was a bit excessive, they laughed and replied that they were only having mixers. True, they also had big jugs of tomato juice and bottles of Coke in front of them.

Later that evening, when flicking through the TV channels, I came across one of Russia's most popular primetime chat shows, the "soft-scripted" (i.e. blending acting with reality) spatfest "Pust Govoryat" ("Let Them Speak") on the state-owned Channel One. Friends had told me that the host, Andrei Malakhov, usually discusses pressing social issues and tells real-life stories. This time his guest was an allegedly15 year old girl from Omsk with butterfly-shaped hair clips all around her face, who defiantly admitted to having drunk vodka regularly for the past five years, always chivvied on by her father. The show, whose format resembles the gladiatorial matches in ancient Rome, had matronly members of the audience hurling abuse at the girl, while a series of men, who walked into the arena strutting their stuff, called her a slut. Throughout the girl remained unrepentant: no she did not have an alcohol problem, no she did not want to go into rehab, no she was fine and yes, she wanted to return to Omsk to live with an alcoholic for a father.

Itís hard to get reliable information on the extent of Russia's alcohol epidemic. My own impressions can only serve as circumstantial evidence. Nevertheless, the WHO's recently released (2011) data on alcohol consumption in Russia makes very sobering reading. Alcohol-wise, Russia is back where it was thirty years ago. Russians, on average, get through about 18 litres (32 pints) of pure alcohol a year. That's more than twice the amount Poles, Spaniards and Brits drink, or twice the critical norm set by the WHO. But hereís a truly staggering fact: Even though nearly 50 percent of alcohol consumption comes in the form of vodka, 140 million Russians statistically drink so much beer that their 38 percent residual beer consumption is still enough to make Russia the fourth-largest beer market globally.

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