In the land of vodka, a boom in alcohol-free beer

Czars tried to control it. Bolsheviks outlawed it. Soviet-era Communist Party bosses campaigned against it. But none could keep Russians from their vodka.

And they still lead the world in alcohol consumption, each drinking some 16 quarts of pure alcohol a year.

But while high alcoholism rates are often cited as part of Russia's broader social decline, today that hard-liquor culture may be changing, if modestly.

Vodka sales are slowing, and production dropped 9 percent last year, while sales of beer - with much lower alcohol content - have surged from 10 to 30 percent each year for a decade. Growth in 2000 was 23 percent.

But the key may be the surprising popularity of a new, nonalcoholic beer, called Baltika No. 0.

"In the beginning, we were afraid there would be no demand, or that it would be very weak," says Alexandre Dedegkaev, production director at Baltika, Russia's largest brewery. "Now the line is loaded to 100 percent capacity," with plans to at least double output this year."

Baltika first put a nonalcoholic brew on the market in 1996, but it failed to sell and became the butt of jokes. Since late February, though, when the Swedish-Finnish owned St. Petersburg brewery put out "Baltika No. 0," Russians have been snapping it up.

One reason is taste. To separate alcohol from fully fermented beer, Baltika uses an expensive process that preserves taste. Even plant workers here can't tell the difference in blind tests, company officials say.

But some argue that Russian "progress" is the main reason for its popularity. There is a growing awareness of the dangers and scale of alcoholism in Russia, even as many statistics continue to worsen. Some 34,000 people died of alcohol poisoning in Russia last year, government officials say, up 13.7 percent from 1999. Overall alcohol consumption continues to grow.

So there may be a greater sophistication of Russian drinkers, who demand a "softer" tipple than vodka, and who widely consider beer to be on a par with soda. People gather at city kiosks to drink beer at any time of day. According to Russian law, beer is not an alcoholic beverage; Baltika advertises it as a "civilized" and even healthy alternative to vodka. Market research commissioned by Coca Cola found that overall soft-drink sales were up 17 percent last year, too, with expected gains of 13.5 percent in 2001. Mineral-water production is also increasing.

"I didn't think the market could change so much," says Mr. Dedegkaev, who notes a rising standard of living in recent years. "Alcoholism is a social phenomenon, and while many countries have it, we consume more [vodka] than we should. Now, priorities are changing. People are more European, busier, and treat their life and health more carefully."

Not all are convinced that beer - or its nonalcoholic variant - can wean Russian drinkers from liquor.

"I don't think that Russia has passed the turning point toward a healthy mode of life," says Alexander Pavlov, deputy head of the Agriculture Ministry's Food Industry Department in Moscow. "The wider spread of nonalcoholic beer, and more low-alcohol drink consumption, does not solve the problem of alcoholism," he says. "If young people lose interest in vodka, the situation may be improving. But on the other hand, regular consumption of low-alcohol drinks can form a habit."

Still, it's a start.

There have also been changes at the political level. Former President Boris Yeltsin was sometimes visibly drunk in public, an infamous imbiber of vodka who would disappear for days during drinking bouts. But the more youthful President Vladimir Putin, a judo expert who exercises regularly, met British leader Tony Blair last year in a Moscow pub for a pint of lager.

Though Russia last year received $3.2 billion in revenues from alcohol production - more than 5 percent of total state income - Mr. Putin last August signed a string of strict new tax regulations that chilled the industry. Confusion over their implementation, and lack of new required tax stamps, led to the shutdown over the weekend of many of Russia's 700 legal vodka distilleries.

Prohibition winds have also come from health minister Gennady Onishchenko, who told Russians in January not to be lulled by feel-good beer ads. He warned that a "sea of beer" was exacerbating already-heavy vodka use. "Now even children and teenagers drink this."

While some in the Russian press criticized the minister for missing the point that vodka is the real concern, that antidrinking sentiment is hardly ruffling feathers for the new Museum of Russian Vodka, which opened in St. Petersburg last Friday. "We see vodka as a national drink, like Irish whisky and French cognac," says museum director Sergei Chentsov. "Formerly, it was a myth of the Russian image, that vodka was a degenerating aspect of Russian culture."

Exhibits show vodka's historic importance, and "indispensable" role in Russian feasts since medieval times. Visitors are greeted by a life-size wax figure of a monk offering a shot of vodka, while standing over a primitive moonshine apparatus.

History records that even this nation's choice of religion depended on the stuff. In the 10th century, Prince Vladimir (later made a saint) chose Christianity over Islam, which prohibited alcohol, because "drink is the joy of the Russians." There's also the legend of a 14th-century battle at the River Piani, where Russian forces, after a bout of drinking, were surprised and slaughtered by Mongols. Ever since, the word piani has been the root for many Russian words about drunkenness.

Peter the Great - a famously heavy drinker himself - used a "Great Eagle Goblet" as a punishment, sometimes forcing guests to drink down a bowl full of vodka.

But in the Soviet era, alcohol had mixed reviews. Lenin reportedly said that "vodka and other poisons will lead us back to capitalism." Stalin portrayed alcoholism as tantamount to economic sabotage, and one official study in 1923 - the year total prohibition was lifted - calculated that the grain wasted on brewing illegal moonshine, called samogon, could have saved thousands from starving.

Mikhail Gorbachev launched his own war against drunkenness in the '80s, but though the tough restrictions he imposed improved health appreciably, they carried a high political cost.

As much as aficionados may consider vodka the "water of life" in Russia, critics and officials say Russia must confront this heritage. Non-alcoholic beer may be a start, and the popularity of Baltika No. 0 points to changing Russian attitudes. But few think it will prove a solution.

"Because all beer is not officially considered alcohol, it can be advertised and sold everywhere, including improper places like schools," says Pavel Shapkin, head of the National Alcohol Association.

"Even when factories produce some no-alcoholic beer, they are motivated not by the propaganda of a healthy life, but by purely economic reasons."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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