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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Beer Beats Vodka for Young Drinkers

MTBeer consumption rose to 42 liters per capita in 2001 compared to 15 liters in 1996.
The table in the bar called Russian Style offered a tableau of Russian style old and new: As they sat down to talk business one afternoon last week, Andrei Gromtsev ordered two shots of vodka, but Sergei Sergeyev had a tall glass of Klinskoye beer.

"I prefer to get a little buzz, but not much," said Sergeyev, 30, a trader. "I like to eat spicy food, and it goes well with beer. It enhances the taste of the food and it's hard to resist."

A decade ago -- even a few years ago -- passing up vodka for beer would have been unheard of here. But Russia is undergoing another revolution, this one playing out as much in the bars as on the streets. The country famed for its vodka-swilling is turning quite dramatically to pale ales, stouts and their cousins. Consumption of beer per capita has nearly tripled in the last six years, and marketing firms predict beer sales will outpace vodka sales this year for the first time in Russia.

"People are switching from stronger drinks to beer," said Maria Vanifatora, director of the Business Analytika marketing agency's retail index, which estimates that Russians will spend $6.5 billion on beer this year, compared with $6.3 billion on vodka. "Of course it's a big change."

The consequences for Russian self-identity are hard to overestimate. Imagine if the French started drinking more beer than wine. Or the Germans more wine than beer. This is, after all, the nation that boasts several vodka museums, where every attempt to limit vodka consumption by decree has failed spectacularly, from the tsars and Lenin right up to Mikhail Gorbachev's anti-alcohol program in the 1980s. Yet what the Kremlin failed to achieve, modern breweries have begun to accomplish.

Historically, vodka has been viewed as a God-given right. Some Russians throw back their first shot of the day with breakfast. On early morning flights, business executives barely wait until takeoff to crack open the bottles. At street kiosks, a bottle can be had for just a couple of bucks. If that's too pricey, there's vodka in a can.

While the purchase price has remained low, the cost has remained high. Alcoholism is rampant -- and one reason life expectancy for Russian men has fallen below 60 in recent years. Thanks to alcoholic benders, Russia suffers from phenomenally high rates of people drowning, freezing to death and falling from windows.

Traditionalists see vodka through a romantic lens and view the rise of beer as a threat to the Russian soul. "The Russian character, the Russian nature is not changed by this fact," said Nikolai Krivomazov, editor of Russian Vodka magazine. "Strong character, strong drink. That's the Russian character."

Beer consumption has been growing strongly since 1996, when the average Russian drank about 15 liters, compared with 42 liters last year, according to Business Analytika. While that is still just one-fourth of the average beer consumption in the Czech Republic, the world leader, it has shot past vodka, which has declined since 1999 from 15.5 liters per capita to 14.4 liters. The beer industry projects that consumption of its products will rise to 70 liters per capita within five years.

In terms of revenue, the sales figures will catch up with consumption this year, with beer growing by 12 percent to finally pass vodka, although some vodka makers said that doesn't reflect the full picture because many Russians drink alcohol made and sold illegally.

In the past, there was little choice. Russian beer tasted terrible and imports were hard to come by. Today, Russian companies produce far better brews, such as Klinskoye and Baltika, and foreign brands are widely available. A microbrewery called Tinkoff opened last year with a half-dozen different brews, not to mention Russian variations -- beer mixed with white wine, champagne, tequila or soft drinks.

"People always liked beer here, but now we have a lot of diversity, a lot more brands," said Oleg Albayev, 42, director of a small bar that carries not only Klinskoye but everything from Heineken and Bavaria to Miller Genuine Draft and Corona Extra. "There's better quality and more competition."

Yet while some consider the shift to a softer alcoholic beverage an improvement, many worry it has only transformed the alcohol problem rather than eased it. Vodka consumption has fallen somewhat, but not at the rate that beer consumption has risen. To many Russians, beer is seen as nothing more than a soft drink; teenagers regularly walk down streets in the middle of the day, bottle in hand.

Alcoholism clinics already are feeling the impact. "The new trend is that we're beginning to have more and more younger patients," said Yevgeny Yankin, head of the narcology and psychiatry department at the University of Peoples' Friendship.

Critics, including Yankin, point the finger at glitzy, Western-style advertising that dominates Russian television with images of slim, stylish young people quaffing beer at the beach. Beer producers spend $400 million a year on television commercials, nearly a quarter of all television advertising.

Worried lawmakers, egged on by the vodka industry, which is prohibited from advertising on television, have moved to rein in the breweries. The State Duma voted 231 to 24 last month to ban beer ads from prime-time television.

The legislation, which must survive another vote and be passed by the upper house before being sent to President Vladimir Putin, would also prohibit beer makers from using famous actors or athletes to promote their products, or any image of people or animals. Ads would not be allowed to target minors, suggest that drinking beer quenches thirst or promote the idea that beer raises social status. Beer billboards would be prohibited within 100 yards of schools, churches and hospitals.

Beer makers insist that assertions of a growing problem among the young are invented by the vodka manufacturers. They maintain that beer consumption "is healthier" and "the only way to cut consumption of absolute alcohol," as Baltika put it.

Far harder to measure, or judge, could be the intangible effects of the changing drinking patterns. In a country that believes its founding father chose the Orthodox religion because it was more permissive toward alcohol, the eclipse of vodka still remains hard to imagine.

"The Russian soul is a mystery," said Alexander Boyarkov, 52, who has owned Russian Style bar since the end of communism in 1991. "That's how we drink. If you've got a problem, you drink. If you're happy, you drink. If you go on a picnic, you drink. That's how we have fun. But now in a Western market economy, we don't have as much time. Everybody's too busy and you can't drink as much."