St. Petersburg, Russia’s second largest city and the former imperial capital, eternally besmirched by my presence, happens to possess an extensive beer scene. This can perhaps be explained through geography and history.

North of Europe is not ripe with grapes, so the local Finno-Ugric and Slavic tribes produced intoxicating drinks from whatever was available, mainly barley and hops (honey too, but let’s leave the meads aside for now). The results were called olut in Finnish, and pivo in Russian. Once the territory was reconquered by Muscovites and St. Petersburg established as the capital of the new Russian Empire, influences from Northern Europe started arriving. Thanks to, amongst others, the city founder Peter the Great, English and Dutch beer-drinking culture managed to gain a foothold. The court was so fond of the stuff that the particularly devastating varieties were designated Russian Imperial Stout (RIS) by 18th century British importers.

By then, industrial-scale production started in St. Petersburg itself at breweries like Kalinkin, organized primarily by English and German merchants. The city’s turbulent 20th century history meant that none of these breweries survived in their original form, due to the prohibition during World War I and the Civil War, the devastating siege during World War II, and the economic chaos after the Soviet regime collapsed.

Some old-style establishments still exist, though. If you’re arriving by train from Helsinki, check out Sever-Plyus, a bar with at least a half-century’s worth of history. They only serve one type of beer, Zhuguli, a generic lager from the Moscow suburb of Mytishchi, but it’s about as authentic as you can get.

Traditional Western Influences

Once capitalism was back in, Western companies like Heineken and Carlsberg entered Russia’s market, which they now dominate. So did Western-style pubs, of which two Irish ones, Mollie’s and Shamrock, are thought to be the oldest. Both are safe and unchallenging options, and are of the type ubiquitous around the world, not that there’s ever anything wrong with a few pints of Guinness.

More recently, Belgian pubs appeared on the local scene – and spread far and wide, which is a good thing as far as I’m concerned, if only for my preference for the variety of beer styles that they offer. Every KwakInn outlet I’ve been to has been very much worth it, with great selection of mostly Belgian brews and a warm and welcoming yet non-intrusive atmosphere. If you’re in St Petersburg as a tourist, then you’re probably forced to loiter around the city centre; in which case I suggest salvation in the form of Palm on Bolshaya Konyushennaya street. It’s a tad pricey, but in the tourist part of town you aren’t provided with much choice.

In roughly the same style (ie. Belgian pub), slightly further away from the Hermitage but on the same block as the main building of the Russian National Library, Brasserie de Metropole  serves good things it actually brews (not just imports). If you’re not frightened off by the generally bourgeois atmosphere (there’s also a glitzy restaurant in the same location so tell the gateman you’re headed to the pub), and if you’re but a petit-bourgeois like myself, the Metropole’s Petit Lambic is a true saviour on a hot day.

Craft Beer Breweries

A culturally and economically daring city like St. Petersburg could not be immune from the craft beer revolution sweeping across Europe. Over the years, Vasileostrovskaya Pivovarnya, one of the first local independent breweries, left the Vasilyevsky Island that gave it its name, but more importantly it expanded its range to include more daring styles like RISs and IPAs. They don’t have any bars of their own but their beers are sold just about everywhere and are nearly always great.

Knightberg, another veteran local brewery that made a transition towards innovation, does have a physical presence – and a pretty central one at that, just across the river from the cruiser Aurora. You can see the tanks where the brewing takes place, you can see kegs being filled, and you can buy a bottle or a pint – unless they’re too busy to serve, as customer service is subordinate to the production side of things.

Alongside breweries that have their own production facilities, the craft beer revolution was accomplished also by contract brewers that ordered their experimental recipes to be produced at established places. Some of the more prominent and long-serving of these include AFBrew, Bakunin, Craft Brew Riots, and Mager. All provide quality drinks and some have established their own bars.

Craft Brew Riots, with its emphasis on non-commercial creativity and free collaboration, is absolutely adorable with most of their beers made in co-operation with like-minded colleagues. The best bet for accessing its current repertoire are the Crazy Craft shops, one of which is on the Petrograd side and another in the city centre, just where tourist crowds roam. Typical for the city, it’s part bottle-shop and part bar. At times they hold jungle/drum and bass parties, but under normal circumstances craziness only prevails in flavours.

St Petersburg Beer Guide - Crazy Craft Nevsky

Craft Brew Riots also organise an annual celebration of all things brewed in the spirit of communality: Old Skull Fest. It’s held in the same building that Knightberg brewery is located, and brings together dozens of breweries from across Russia, punk and metal music, and a healthy doze of chaos. It’s held at the same time as the St Petersburg Craft Weekend  – a more expensive and more extensive affair co-organised by KwakInn and, I believe, Mager, Russia’s oldest commercial contract brewery.

AFBrew’s Redrum is rather explicitly modelled after Scandinavian establishments, which includes a selection of exquisite beers on tap (great), smorrebrod sandwiches (good), great design and furniture (also good), and prices almost as high as Danish counterparts (less good).

St Petersburg Beer Guide - Redrum

Bakunin started as a bottle shop and bar first and expanded into brewing later. It’s a good, respectable looking place in a quiet part of the city centre with about twenty taps (including guest brews) and many more beers in bottles. More centrally located and with expanded food options, Bakunin’s own Rockets & Bishops is a spot combining craft beer, burgers that don’t fall apart, and funk and hip hop music.

St Petersburg Beer Guide - Bakunin

Not brewery owned (so a bit of a deviation) but also combining a love of soul and funk with a great selection of craft beer is Top Hops. Food-wise it’s mostly Mexican, and is located near the Russian National Library in a historical building marked by a plaque name-checking Lenin.

St Petersburg Beer Guide - Top Hops

While not a local brewery but from the industrial Urals town of Zarechny, Jaws has their own bar and bottle shop, Jawsspot, in a building made visible from afar by a giant Daniil Kharms mural. The bar is larger than most of its kind in St. Petersburg and does not limit itself to Jaws’ own products.

Craft Beer Bars & Bottle Shops

As for size, Jawsspot can be contrasted with Beergeek – a charmingly claustrophobic basement on the city’s main food street, Rubinshteyna (where the aforementioned Mollie’s is also located, as are a generic British pub and a generic Belgian gastropub – the Telegraph and Waterloo respectively). It takes a half-dozen people or so to pack Beergeek to the brim, and exhausting its extensive catalogue of tap and bottled beers requires several repeat visits.

St Petersburg Beer Guide - Beer Geek

If small dark basements filled with craft beer are your thing (I find them irresistible), Pivnaya Diyeta, or Beer Diet, is just the place. Like Beergeek, it’s just off the Nevsky Prospect, although a tad further from the touristy part. Bakunin Cafe is a few courtyards away, and the Moscow Station is close by. Beer Diet serves beers and ciders but hardly any food except snacks; as the Russian saying goes, “Zakuska gradus kradyot” – “Appetisers steal ABVs”, or something along those lines.

St Petersburg Beer Guide - Beer Diet

If your life journey condemns you to travel to Moscow by train, another place for a pre-departure pint would be the Fish Fabrique, literally across the street from the station. St. Petersburg’s oldest surviving rock club, it has recently begun grudgingly offering local craft beers in addition to the usual Euro lagers.

But my paths usually lead elsewhere, so sometimes there’s a pint at yet another basement, Povtorit? (have another one?), this one’s friendly to punks and metal kids (and dogs, too, they collect donations for a dog shelter). A few taps and a few dozen bottles are on offer, so off you go.

St Petersburg Beer Guide - Povtorit

Thankfully, the craft beer revolution has reached my neighbourhood with the opening of Beer & Cakes. It does serve some cakes (and burgers, pizzas and fries) in addition to beer, and is by far one of the friendliest places I’ve been to. If you’re down in this part of the city, I bid you welcome, as Count Dracula used to say.


St. Petersburg Beer Guide photos by Dmitriy Ivanov; header image courtesy of Flickr: Ninara


Send this to friend