Baltika: The Big Russian
I’ve been to some big breweries in my time, but Baltika takes the biscuit.
The largest brewery in Europe covers an area not much smaller than the Vatican City, 30 hectares of bustling beer production on the outskirts of Russia’s second city.
The tourist highlights of St Petersburg are well known – the Winter Palace, the Hermitage art gallery, the ship Aurora that fired the gun that started the Russian Revolution – but, if you have the time, it’s worth a trip to Baltika as well, just to goggle at the immenseness of the enterprise.
What’s even more remarkable is that the brewery didn’t even exist until 1990. In those dying days of the Soviet Union there were just 28 beer brands available in the whole of Russia.
When the Iron Curtain fell and the international market opened up, they were not brands that people wanted to drink anymore, which left a giant hole for a new kind of Russian brewery to fill.
Work actually started on the St Petersburg (then Leningrad) brewery in 1978 and Baltika was formed as a state company on its completion in 1990.
The business was privatised two years later (by means of mergers and take-overs, it is now part of the Carlsberg group) and thoughts turned to creating specific Baltika brands to replace the old Soviet beers it had produced to that point.
Gradually, a range of modern-looking beers developed with appeal not just to the citizens of Russia but also those of the wider world.
All the Baltika beers are simply labelled by number. By far the best known is Baltika No. 3, an international, pilsner-esque, quaffing beer. It’s a solid product, the winner of a number of international awards. Of greater interest, however, are the other numbers in the range.
Baltika No. 4 Original is a beer broadly in the Vienna lager style, with the inclusion of rye malt for a nutty character. No. 5 Gold is a sweet lager with a caramel character, No. 6 is an acclaimed, strong porter, and No. 7 is a lager in the export mould.
No. 8 is Baltika’s wheat beer, a weizenbier clone with banana and gentle spices in the taste, while No. 9 Extra is, as its name suggests, a strong lager, with an ABV of 8%. Lower down the scale, No. 2 is a light beer with a high rice component, and there’s also a 0.5% alcohol product known appropriately as No. 0.
In addition to these main brands, a pilot brewery produces some short-run, speciality beers, including a recent Old New Year Chocolate Stout, brewed in collaboration with local beer enthusiast Eugene Tolstov and British brewer David Clarke.
Almost a Small Town
To give you some idea of the scale of the Baltika operation and the way it has expanded in such a short period of time, you just need to mention that some 3,000 people are employed at the St Petersburg brewery, with a further 10,000 working at the ten other cities across Russia where Baltika operates breweries.
In effect the St Petersburg brewery is almost a small town. It has its own power plant, generating all the heat and steam it requires, plus some of the electricity. In addition to the full catering facilities you’d expect to find in any major business, staff are also looked after with a social club, a swimming pool and a spa. The brewery even has its own dentist.
As far as production is concerned, the brewhouse is a veritable forest of stainless steel. There are five separate brewlines, 198 fermentation tanks and the biggest lauter tun in Europe, with a diameter of 13.5 metres. More than 100,000 tonnes of malt are used every year here and a dedicated unit has had to be created to dispose of spent grains.
Beer is packaged in kegs and bottles on a scale I’ve never witnessed before. Just under half of the bottles are returnable and there are enough paper labels washed off to be recycled into scrap paper. Baltika also uses PET bottles and has a line that manufactures them inside the brewery itself.
When the beer is ready to be shipped it is moved across the road to the warehouse, although again this seems a hopelessly inadequate description. The unit here covers the area of three football fields and holds a million crates of beer.
Forty forklifts are needed to move the goods around and the company has 1,800 railway carriages to take the beer away. When you hear that the whole warehouse is emptied and refilled every three days, it’s just another astonishing fact that you can’t quite comprehend.
Looking at the highly efficient warehouse operation, it’s hard to believe that, until fairly recently, the brewery also ran its own team of shire horses.
But, with a ban on alcohol advertising introduced in Russia, the publicity value of the horses was wiped away and so their former stables have now been converted into a visitor centre.
Here you can take an informative look into beer’s past in Russia. You can see how farmers made beer filtered through grass, how jars of wort were 'cooked' in peasant ovens and how heated rocks once created a local form of ‘stein’ beer.
There’s a recreation of a late-19th-century porterhouse (pictured above), a traditional pub that is almost like a Victorian drawing room, complete with piano, and there’s a glimpse at how beer culture was snuffed out after the Revolution.
Stepping back into the ultra-modern brewery from the museum is a form of culture shock. The scale of the operation, once again, hits you square in the eyes and demands you take a step back.
It’s a disorientating experience but luckily there’s plenty of good beer on hand to ease the symptoms.