Russia – the land of vodka, right? On first glance, the Smirnoff-swilling motherland might seem an unlikely beer destination. In fact, Russia has been brewing for centuries and Russian beer, particularly its stouts and porters, have become beloved stalwarts of the international beer world.

Brewers across Russia are creating some of the most exciting – and sultry – beers on the planet. Combined with the country’s frosty climes and hearty food, it’s tough to go wrong. Here’s our guide to sampling Russia’s surprising craft beer scene in its two main cities: Moscow and St Petersburg.

An amber-coloured beer in a pint glass with Jaws brewery branding on a wood table © Megan Eaves / Lonely Planet

Beer for the tsars

In January 1698, Russia’s most outward-looking tsar, Peter the Great, set foot in Britain on a year-long European tour, learning the art of shipbuilding along the River Thames and frequenting the taverns of south London. It was here that Peter fell in love with the porters and stouts that were commonly drunk by British dockworkers. Peter took the style back to Russia with him, decreeing that ale should be made available for his navy and hospitals. Later, under tsarina Catherine the Great, beers from British brewery Burton became a popular import, while Russian brewers essentially copied British-style dark beers, brewing them at higher temperatures (for ale fermentation) and to higher strengths, giving rise to the ‘Russian imperial stout’ – a style of which Catherine was notoriously fond.

Though dark beer was largely lost during Soviet times (when vodka and lager were easier to make with limited ingredients), the craft beer revolution reached Russia in the early 2000s and brewers began to revive those old dark beers. The craft beer scene grew quickly after.

A book of Robert K Massie's Peter the Great on a table next to a pint of dark beer © Megan Eaves / Lonely Planet

In 2013, Moscow beer shop and early adopter GlavPivMag ordered in its first-ever pair of kegs of St Petersburg-based AF Brew’s pale ale, prompting queues for beer that the shop’s owner reckons the city hadn’t seen since the Soviet era. Since then, dozens of bars and shops have opened across Russia, making it easy to sample the country’s unique brews.

Today Russia is a destination awash in great beer, especially strong porters and stouts, and its home-grown artisan beers rival any in the world.

Malty in Moscow

Russia’s looming capital is also its trendy heart: Moscow feels like a city where stuff is happening. All those 12 million Muscovites you see shuffling to and from work on the oft-praised, architecturally wonderful metro have to drink somewhere, after all.

Locals cosying up to the bar at Rule Taproom in Moscow © Megan Eaves / Lonely Planet

A good place to start is Rule Taproom: a punkish bar stuck down a side street that is aptly difficult to spot. While American craft beer posters and pump clips from Colorado breweries greet you inside, the 25-strong tap list is mainly Russian with the odd import thrown in. It gets busy, even on snowy December nights.

Jawsspot is the taproom of Jaws Brewery, one of Russia’s longest-running craft breweries (founded in 2008 in the town of Zarechny). The bar is located on the top floor of a very average mall, but has some nice views and their core beers, plus some specials, are constantly flowing. You’ll see Jaws’ easy-drinking pale ale all over the country, and the sessionable oatmeal stout will please dark-beer drinkers.

Craft RePUBlic is a basement bar for real beer lovers with 25 taps – the sort of place where you can turn up two days before Christmas, dance around with the barmen to festive tunes, and get poured a wildcard beer from their taps (or a giant sharing bottle) whose name you never find out. Not that we know from experience... Even on more subdued occasions, this is one of Moscow’s most top-notch beer-nerd options.

A colourful chalkboard beer menu on the wall above a man pouring beer behind a bar at Eric the Red in Moscow © Megan Eaves / Lonely Planet

There’s a huge menu of international and Russian beers at Eric the Red, handily located right along touristy Arbat street. The offerings upstairs seem to be somewhat different to the ground-floor bar, but the menu is immense and features plenty of Russian-grown brews.

Near Tretyakovskaya commercial district, you can pop in to earthy Underdog for a pint at the wooden bar just off the main shopping street, and around the corner trendy Parka – apparently styled like a traditional banya (bathhouse) – has a solid set of Russian taps, though service can be patchy. Further afield, Varka pub near suburban Taganskaya metro station is where to find real Muscovites hanging out supping brews to a metal soundtrack.

A plate of dark dumplings and a plate of light dumplings on a wooden table with a bottle of craft beer at Lepim i Varim in Moscow © Megan Eaves / Lonely Planet

Farsh has locations all over Moscow with order-at-the-counter burgers and a fridge full of craft beers, which makes for an easy meal and a brew if you’ve just arrived. Or for something more local, nip in to Lepim i Varim for crazy-good (but not pricey) Russian pelmeni (dumplings) to pair with a few beers.

Sudsy St Petersburg

Moscow may be Russia’s cosmopolitan capital, but St Petersburg will always be its historical beer base. Indeed, the country’s first two breweries – Stepan Razin and Vena – were founded here, and for its boutiquey size, St Petersburg has a refreshing number of modern microbreweries, cool taprooms and bars.

A bar lady pours a beer from a selection of taps at Redrum in St Petersburg © Megan Eaves / Lonely Planet

Your first and possibly only stop really needs to be Redrum. Taproom of local star brewery AF Brew, it is minimalist and keeps a rotating selection of AF’s beers on tap, plus plenty of international brews that will knock your socks off. And there are creepy paintings of scenes from The Shining, which definitely keep you drinking.

You’re going to see Bakunin Brewery’s beers all over Russia, but sup them at the source: Rockets & Bishops, Bakunin’s minimalist, Scandi-style taproom with a conversation-encouraging no–wi-fi policy. There are also burgers. Just up Gorokhovaya, Craft Brew Cafe is an accessible, American-style beer restaurant with lots of Russian craft options and a massive pub-food menu.

High tables and stools in a sleek, minimalist taproom at Rockets & Bishops in St Petersburg © Megan Eaves / Lonely Planet

The similarly named but unaffiliated Craft Pub has lots of Russian beers on a confusingly long menu in a sport-meets-Irish-pub atmosphere. The selection of beer is solid and there’s plenty of seating and stomach-lining food.

Top Hops ticks lots of boxes with its pretty riverside real estate, 20 taps and Tex-Mex snackage, and if you fancy some bottles for your suitcase, both Beergeek and Beer Boutique 1516 are technically beer shops but you can drink in, too.

Russian breweries and beers

Though around 10% of Russia’s beer market is comprised of dark beers, there is something on offer for most palates, so you won’t want for a sour, a hopped-up IPA or a good old lager, either.

A paper menu full of Russian-language beers, with a dark porter in a pint glass at Craft Pub in St Petersburg © Megan Eaves / Lonely Planet

It seems like Russia hasn’t quite cottoned on to the brewery taproom just yet, so in most bars you’re going to want to know which beers to look out for. Staff members in a lot of the places mentioned above are friendly, speak English and are happy to make suggestions of local brews. Here are a few Russian breweries to keep an eye out for on your sudsy hunt.

Moscow-based breweries: Zagovor Brewery, One Ton, Selfmade, ID Brewery, New Riga’s, Red Button, XP Brew, Velka Morava and Moscow Brewing Co.

St Petersburg-based breweries: AF Brew, Bakunin and Vasileostrovskaya Brewery. Baltika – Russia’s second-largest brewery, now owned by Carlsberg – is also based here.

Further afield, you’ll find these breweries in many bars across Russia: Jaws Brewery, Plan B Yaroslavl, Salden’s Brewery Tula, Brewlok Voronezh and Petr Petrovich.

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