A journey to Russia with a few sips of beer


IN AN EFFORT to broaden my cultural horizons, I went to a Russian opera and I drank some Russian beer.

I liked their beer better than their opera, but then again I probably feel that way about almost any country, except Italy.

I took in the opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk by Dmitri Shostakovich, and the beer, Baltika Porter and Zolotaya Bochka, while participating in the Vivat! festival honoring the 300th birthday of St. Petersburg, Russia.

The opera was haunting and had some terrific dramatic effects, including the final scene in which the singers, trudging off to prison, get snowed on. Lemme tell you, that was a four-star snow! Big Siberian flakes falling on the Lyric's stage.

But the story, set in the repressive reign of Joseph Stalin, was a bummer. I have trouble coddling up to show in which the husband gets whacked by the wife early in the proceedings. In this one, the husband and the father-in-law got knocked off by a bored, if persecuted, wife. Call me small-minded, but as a husband, I'm against that.

I was still brooding about Lady Macbeth of Mtsesnk on the dark winter night that I ventured to Max's on Broadway in Fells Point to drink Russian brews. Once I stepped inside the joint, and had a beer in my hand, everything turned rosy.

A section of the bar, transformed to look like a bit of St. Petersburg, had been painted a rich red. The color reminded me of the beets on the bar's menu. Nicole Brown, a senior at the Maryland Institute College of Art who decorated the room, said that the red was also the same shade found in the poster of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, guiding light of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, that she hung on a wall.

When I asked Brown if her parents knew she had been out on the town painting a barroom red, she replied that they had recently traveled to the bar from their Bergen County, N.J., home to see firsthand their daughter's work. Talk about parental payback from perestroika.

Eons ago when I was in college, my generation was told it was better to be dead than red. If you even mentioned the word Bolshevik, your parents threatened to cut off tuition payments and yank you back home. But now, thanks to changing times, a college student paints a wall Lenin's favorite color, invites her parents to a bar and everyone ends up happy. Is this a great country or what?

The yeasty effects of change have also improved the quality of Russian beer, or so I am told. I have never been to Russia. I find it hard enough to pry myself out of the recliner and walk a few blocks to the opera, let alone travel thousands of miles to a foreign land. But some of my comrades have lived in Russia and sampled the beverages. In researching the history of Russian beer, I tapped their knowledge. They spoke of two beer eras: the days of old Soviet suds, followed by the fall of communism in the early 1990s and the ensuing rise of free-market breweries.

Scott Shane, for instance, who visited the country as a student in the late 1970s and worked there as a correspondent for The Sun from 1988 to 1991, sent me this recollection of the old pre-capitalism times, when to drink beer required a strong stomach and a loose view of hygiene.

"Beer was commonly sold from tank-carts," Shane recalled. "Normally you'd belly up to the cart (often after waiting in line) and hand over your 50 kopecks or so to the babushka in charge, who would draw you a mug from one of the three or four glass mugs available. Normally the mugs would be rinsed between customers on a tap that opened and sprayed water when you pressed the upside-down mug on it. For special occasions, you would bring your own three-liter glass jar and fill it up, then buy some minnow-sized dried, salted fish, which you would consume -- bones, head and all -- accompanying the beer. I'm not a connoisseur, but I found it drinkable -- mild and lukewarm."

Will Englund and his wife, Kathy Lally, did two stints for The Sun in Russia, 1991 to 1995 and 1997 to 2001.

They told me that with the collapse of communism in 1991, ownership of the breweries switched to private companies, and the beer improved drastically. After the revolution in beer, they said, bottles of the stuff no longer exploded while sitting in your pantry. No longer, they said, were beer halls places where you had to step over the bodies of drunken men.

Moreover, they said, the free-market beer picked up new status in the Russian social order. It was considered a chic beverage quaffed by young, urban professionals who, unlike generations before them, did not believe they were put on Earth solely to drink from the river of Russian vodka.

"Maybe, as unpatriotic as it sounds," Englund wrote in a 1998 dispatch assessing the thirst of St. Petersburg citizens, "there are a few occasions when it just might make more sense to drink a beer than to drink vodka."

When it came time to order beer at Max's, I presented the bartender with a list of brands recommended by my well-traveled colleagues. The bartender was a striking-looking young man of Ukrainian heritage named Lev Iwasho. Lev, as everyone called him, told me he not only spoke both Russian and Ukrainian, he also danced in Russian and Ukrainian dance troupes.

Behind the bar, a television screen showed a tape of dancers, whom Lev identified as Russians. The main difference between the two dancing styles, he said, as he fetched me a beer, was that when you dance the Ukrainian style, you sometimes have to squat. You learn things in a barroom.

Of the selection of 22 bottled Russian beers, I started with the Baltika porter. It was pleasingly dark, had a pleasant coffee aroma and faint chocolate flavors. It, like all the Russian beers sold at Max's, goes for $4.50 for a 16.9-ounce bottle. This, I understand, is much more expensive than what it sells for in Russia, but these beers have been shipped a long way from home.

It is 7 percent alcohol by volume, which is higher than most American beers. But such a beverage, I am told, is sniffed at by Russians, who regard any drink short of 80-proof vodka as bordering on nonalcoholic.

I also had a small glass of Zolotaya Bocha, which had a pale-gold color and crisp flavor but a sharp finish.

Both of these beers had good flavor, even if they were not distinguished by any grace notes. Spending time with these Russian beers was more getting like a friendly clap on the back than hearing a stirring aria.

The beers also were an excellent match with the thin dried sausage (okhotnichi sasiski) and the small smoked fish (kopchyoniyeh moyvy), the Russian munchies that were dispensed at the bar for $1 each. My adventure into Russian culture produced a good time and got me acquainted with a couple of pleasant beers.

Casey Hard, the cellar man at Max's, says it will continue serving Russian beers and bar food for at least another month, hoping to introduce more folks to Russian fare. But I think the place has already been "discovered."

In Milan, the most valued critics of Italian opera, I am told, are the city's bus drivers. In Baltimore, I am told, the recent emigres from Russia are the men who drive the cabs and limos to the airport.

According to Hard, the other day, one of those drivers, a native of St. Petersburg who gave his name as Alex, stopped his cab at Max's, ran inside and asked if the establishment sold the small smoked fish that Russians eat when drinking beer. When he heard it did, the cabdriver promised he would be back, with many of his friends.

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