A Brewery Tour in the Town With No Beer - Welcome to the Switzerland of the Urals (1993)

The Swiss Tourist Board is missing a trick. Having been to Albania recently and hearing the country described as the 'Switzerland of the Balkans', I reflected on the reasons the Swiss don't return the favour and market themselves as the 'Albania of the Alps'. My mind went back to a different time to another Alpine paradise in exile, in the Ural Mountains, and the nondescript town of Krasnoufimsk, which I was assured was in the heart of 'Switzerland of the Urals'.

Perhaps the mind is playing tricks over the 18 years since I visited, as I don't recall pristine lakes and snow-capped mountains in idyllic mountains inhabited by cows with bells and shepherds called Heidi. The only thing that sticks in my mind is the best example I can across of the efficiency of the Soviet distribution system - no bright lights of Geneva and Zurich in my memory, just the nagging question of how a fully-functioning brewery on the edge of town could fail to supply a single drop. An investigation of the brewery itself led to some more baffling questions.

This is not a drinking blog post, although writing about life in rural Russia without reference to a drop of the good stuff is beyond my powers, but drinking was a part of the story.

It was my first official trip and I was determined to make a good impression. A week earlier I had met a girl from Birmingham in an Irish pub in Moscow who was looking for Russian-speaking foreigners to work as aid workers in more remote areas of the country. The pay was four times what I was earning, the adventurer within me awakened and I found myself on a flight to the Ural Mountains three days later, signed contract in hand, proving that I was now employed as a Milk Monitor, a title I had least enjoyed at prep school, for the handsome pay of $1,500 a month.

The project, funded by the American government, seemed to be fulfilling a critical need. As the industrial heartland of the Soviet Union, pollution was a major issue and the knock-on health effects were shocking - it had been reported that 70% of women were unable to lactate. Coupled with the dire economic shortages leading to cattle being slaughtered and the legendary Soviet distribution system, fresh milk was an ever scarcer commodity. A huge targeted distribution of milk powder to pregnant women, large families and children under three was intended to partially address the problem.

I was dispatched to Krasnoufimsk with my Russian colleague Yana after a few days. Our mission was to visit the dairy in the town to gather information on production levels, meet with local council officials to collect lists of potential beneficiaries, then visit a percentage of those beneficiaries to establish that they were genuine. While I was not the first foreigner from the agency to visit, I was the first to spend the night, and that was deemed as cause for celebration by someone. As the town had been off-limits in a closed zone (and hardly a screaming must-see on the tourist trail, despite its Swiss pretensions), a foreigner spending the night was a landmark of sorts.

I remember little of the evening itself, except that there was excess on all levels and it was very jolly. Soviet brotherhood came to the fore as the Georgian wine, Azeri champagne, Armenian brandy and Russian vodka all contributed harmoniously to the mother of all hangovers the following morning. I remembered a lot of toasting to Margaret Thatcher, Winston Curchill and Alan Shearer, each followed by the mandatory downing of sto gram, or 100 grammes of vodka - neat and in one hit (it was only much later in my time in Russia that I learned about the short life expectancy of plants in the vicinity of drinking dens - the dispensing of vodka into unwitting plant pots probably saved my life). In a bid to stem the tide of hard liquor intake, I thought I would switch to beer in this feast of excess, especially as I had seen a brewery on the drive in.

"Your vodka is great," I began in faltering Russian, "but I am more of a beer man and would be keen to try your local brew."

As a conversation killer, I don't think I have ever topped that line.

After what seemed an age of embarrassed silence, feet shuffling and general murmuring, it was explained to me that unfortunately there was no beer in the town, hadn't been for a month and wouldn't be for a while. Realising the embarrassment I had caused, I poured myself 200 grammes, toasted the town and put my liver under more pressure, but the damage was done. My host determined to sort the issue by calling the brewery director and arranging a tour the following morning.

The last thing on my mind as I was awoken by Yana and a sledgehammer going in my head was a tour of a brewery, but there was no escaping the invitation. I wasn't even sure I could navigate our 9am tour of the dairy, not great hangover material, but we had to fulfil our obligations and dutifully appeared outside the brewery gates at 10am as arranged.

Having worked as a student in a brewery in Munich, I had some idea of the process and wasn't expecting the latest equipment, which was just as well. The process was labour intensive, with a less than semi-automated production facility generously augmented by human help at every turn. While I remember one worker, whose sole job it was to balance the beer cap on the top before the machine pressed it down, and another who had to manually apply the labels to each bottle, it was the eagle-eyed old lady scouring every bottle who had me fascinated.

The rickety conveyor pushed forward the recently filled bottles in single file, her eyes darting expertly over each new arrival. I had no idea what her job was, but the concentration was complete. After perhaps a hundred bottles, more, she finally pounced, deftly lifting an offending bottle from the pack. I leaned forward to ascertain what made this bottle stand out from the crowd and saw that its neck was full! Too much beer in this bottle and all bottles should be equal.

By now enthralled, I turned my attention once more to the eagle, and satisfaction was soon forthcoming. After perhaps another minute, a second bottle was plucked from the crowd, this one a little light on liquid. With expert movements, the imbalance was rectified and both bottles sent on their way to the bottle top balancer. I asked her how long she had been doing the job. Thirty years was the reply.

As esteemed guests (if only they knew), we were ushered up to the director's office to meet the man who ran the factory. I was surprised to find he was German and speculated internally that he might have fallen victim to the misrepresentations of the Swiss Urals Tourist Board, until he told me that his father settled here after the war. I wanted to pursue that avenue, the ex-German POW community in the Urals but, along with beer distribution networks, I had a feeling the interest would be unwelcome.

I had more pressing problems, such as how to avoid drinking anything that would surely be offered. Yana, my teetotal colleague, who was clearly enjoying the moral superiority of clear mind and head, gleefully told me that there could be no greater offence than my refusing to drink.

And so my fate was sealed. A phone call was made, beer summonsed. The door opened and the local brew was brought forward and placed on the table in a... bucket. I watched in horror as my non-comrades each presented passable excuses as to why they could not partake - the driver was driving, the director was on duty, my host was too hung over. I was handed a half-litre glass. There was no obvious etiquette for extracting the glass from the bucket, so I simply dipped my glass in and scooped it out. It was foul.

Yana's helpful (gleeful?) cultural advice was to drink a minimum of three, after which the Azeri white came out, a signal for a sharp exit if ever there was one. I made my excuses and we were soon on the road, two cases of the bad stuff in the boot.

It was my first cultural lesson of doing business in Russia. Invent a health or religious reason why you can't drink. Or perish. Not quite the marketing slogan the Switzerland of the Urals might have been striving for, but an essential survival tip.


Mushroom Picking, Naked Saunas and Vodka Exchange Rates: Life in the Russian Countryside (1992)

One of the major benefits of growing up in a Western city is the seemingly unlimited availability of everything, with a choice of food that is obscene. I fondly remember a Russian friend's first visit to Sainsbury's, as she stared incredulously at the potato section.

"There are TEN different types of potato! Why so many? In Russia, a potato is a potato."

"Until it becomes vodka," I replied.

One of the major disadvantages of growing up in a Western city is the disassociation at birth from the ways of Mother Nature. Coming from a culture where 'fresh' tomatoes, pineapples and kiwi are available all year, it was perhaps not surprising to hear the musings of a fellow expat on my idyllic Croatian island:

"There don't seem to be any tomatoes. They have been really hard to find since the Summer. I wonder why?"

Russian Cultural Experiences - In Search of the Perfect Mushroom

My culinary inadequacies were perhaps most lastingly highlighted in my psyche by the withering look of a six-year old Russian girl, whose total contempt at my triumphant find of my first Russian mushroom, in a forest north of St. Petersburg, informed me there was a massive void in knowledge on how things grow:

"Those are poisonous. Everyone knows that." I will try anything once (although the dog kebab in Seoul and the rat cutlet in Guyana are not top of my list for repeats), but it took more than the usual ration of distilled potato to convince me that I really wanted to spend my first free weekend in weeks trekking round a monastery as a prelude to the main event - the Russian national pastime of mushroom picking.

A whole morning was allocated to the event, which consisted of wandering through the forest, scouring the ground for mushrooms. I stopped listening at that point, but Fiona, my partner in crime in this Russian adventure, sat politely through a detailed explanation on the subtleties of mushroom picking.

Although not keen, we entered into the spirit of things and set off enthusiastically into the woods, wondering once again how we ended up in situations like this. We were eight in total, aged from six to sixty, and attacked the forest as if de-mining it, or as part of a forensics team: each had his own patch and progress was slow, cautious and focused.

Fiona and I were the crappest mushroom pickers ever seen in the region, and a little like the incident with the milkless American cows, the locals looked at us with curiosity - if these two were the pride of the West, perhaps Communism and the Soviet Union weren't so bad after all?

As the rest of the team picked up numerous mushrooms, we were lagging behind until Fiona and I had a simultaneous find - two juicy mushrooms! We screamed out joyously, announcing our find. Whether to humour or encourage us, I am not sure, but the whole posse headed in our direction to celebrate our find, and we watched as each cheerful face turned incredulous that we could have interrupted their sport for such an obviously poisonous mushroom. Westerners!

Russian Cultural Experiences - The Weekend Dacha Visit

We were on a mission and decided to avail ourselves of every opportunity to acquaint ourselves with the earthy nature of Mother Russia, so when we were invited to spend the weekend at a friend's dacha, some 80km south of Petersburg, we jumped at the chance.

Asking what we needed to bring, we were told to bring as many half litre bottles of vodka as we could carry, not for drinking (well not all of it), for vodka was gorodski dyengi, or 'city money' - we were soon to find out why.

As Volodya's battered pale blue Lada took more punishment on the final approach on a rough road to the hamlet where they had bought a dacha, Natasha took great delight in pointing out the various local landmarks - fruit and vegetable related of course. Cranberries were divine in that forest, the mushrooms should be ready over there and so on. She was looking forward to all the potatoes and apples they would be returning with. That sounded like hard work to us, for even I, with my city background, had worked out that kilos of apples and potatoes don't magically appear in sacks.

I needn't have worried. Within minutes of our arrival at the decidedly rustic two-storey wooden house, there was a grunt from outside. Volodya disappeared with a bottle of city money, chatted with the grunter and reappeared with the bottle. He had just negotiated the purchase of twenty kilos of potatoes and had shown the seller that the currency was genuine. Volodya had learned from experience that paying in advance in these situations adversely affected delivery.

Russian Cultural Experiences - The Russian Sauna

More grunters appeared and were dispatched to different parts of the surrounding countryside, while Volodya was focusing on what was for him the main event of the weekend, our private banya, or Russian sauna.

We found the little hamlet enchanting, with its full-time population of two old ladies, abandoned by the young who had left long ago for life in the city. Volodya's pride and joy was the banya he had built behind his house, and it quickly dawned on us both that the real reason for the weekend invitation was so that he and Fiona could spend some time in the sauna.

We had heard about the Russian banya, with its birch tree branches immersed in hot water before being used to lightly beat the body in what was allegedly a very enjoyable and therapeutic experience. Fiona and I were debating the etiquette of the Russian banya - girls first, boys second, or all together, in which case what to wear? - when any further questions were pre-empted by our hosts, who both stripped naked and then invited us to do the same, with Volodya's gaze firmly fixed on my friend.

We looked at each other, shrugged our shoulders and went native, and within seconds found ourselves sat in surreal naked sweltering silence in the sauna, which was very hot indeed. "Who's first?" enquired Volodya.

"Paul", answered Fiona, before asking what was on the agenda. I was told to lie down on the wooden bench, while Fiona was invited to choose some birch branches which had been quietly soaking in hot water in the corner. Under Volodya's keen instruction, she then proceeded to beat me from my neck down.

This was my first banya, in July, and an experience I will never forget, but for an added twist, a banya in a Siberian winter is worth the effort. Having been beaten with the birch branches in the heat of the sauna, my colleagues then tossed me stark naked out into the snow and, for twenty seconds - no more - the feeling of rolling around naked in the snow in temperatures of minus twenty after the intense heat, was exquisite. By second twenty-one, the body told me it was time to beat a hasty retreat to the salt fish and beer inside.

Russian Cultural Experiences - Home Delivery Service

Having survived Volodya's attentions, we dressed and returned to the house, to find two huge sacks of apples, 40kg in all, by the front door, with an anxious-looking peasant looking for his payment. Our host disappeared into the house and fetched four half litres of city money.

And here's an interesting cultural difference between home delivery in the UK and the Russian countryside: ordering for home delivery is a simple process - order placed by phone, deliveryman paid on delivery, end of transaction, except in Russia, where the deliveryman was so desperate to cash in that he simply opened the first bottle and settled in to a solo session in our front garden.

We left him to it and he was still there the next morning. He was not alone. We were woken at 3am by another grunter, who had stolen 20kg of potatoes from a farm 10km away, hauled his illicit cache through the forest and demanded instant payment and gratification. The front garden was a war zone in the morning.

I thoroughly enjoyed my forays into Russian nature, and I often raise a smile, as I pick up my nicely packed mushrooms or choose from a variety of potatoes at the supermarket. You get what you pay for but Sainsbury's is quite handy, isn't it?

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