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The View From Here: Where’s my Ukrainian beer?

Feb 15, 2022 | Featured, The View From Here - Walter Kish

Volodymyr Kish.

I have been writing a lot of serious stuff of late in response to the fact that locally, nationally and internationally, all has not been quite right in this world of ours. Between the ongoing scourge of COVID, Putin threatening to start another large-scale invasion of Ukraine, misguided and spiteful so-called “Freedom Convoy” protests in Ottawa, Toronto and local border crossings, stress levels have been abnormally high of late.

There is not too much one can do as an individual to solve these crises, but I have found that having a nice, cold beer can often do a lot of good at moderating stress levels and keeping things in perspective. In particular I have a fondness for the Lvivske brand of Ukrainian beer that the local LCBO (Liquor Control Board of Ontario) used to stock, albeit on an irregular basis.

Beer has been a “go to” remedy for all kinds of ills for at least the past seven thousand years. Archeologists have found evidence that beer was being produced some five millennia B.C. in the area that is now modern-day Iran. There is similar evidence of beer being produced and consumed six thousand years ago in Mesopotamia and five thousand years ago in both China and neolithic Europe.

Ukraine has been a little more of a newcomer when it comes to beer production. The earliest records about beer date back about a thousand years during the time of the Kyiv Rus empire. Likely, the foremost producers of beer at that time were monasteries, where beer was considered a staple of life. The production of beer grew significantly particularly in Western Ukraine during the occupation by the Poles and later the Austro-Hungarian empire. In 1715, a large brewery called Lvivska Pyvovarnia was established in Klepariv, a suburb of Lviv, and it soon grew to be one of the largest breweries in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. That brewery still produces my beloved Lvivske brand of beer.

By the early 1800’s Lviv was a major beer producing center boasting of at least thirteen breweries. In 1897 a number of these breweries united and merged into a corporation known as the LTAB (“Lwowskiego Towarzystwa Akcyjnego Brovarov” – Lviv Joint Stock Society of Brewers) which became one of the largest beer producers at that time in Ukraine. This, and the accompanying investment significantly spurred the rapid growth and modernization of the brewing industry, as well greatly improving the consistency and quality of the beer being made. Beer made in Lviv was held in high regard not only in Ukraine but in most of Eastern Europe as well at that time.

Regrettably, the First World War and the Bolshevik Revolution that followed, destroyed much of the beer industry in Western Ukraine. The number of breweries declined from about 500 that existed prior to the war, down to some 185 by 1928. Nonetheless LTAB continued to prosper until the Second World War. Although the Lviv breweries managed to survive the destruction wrought by World War II, the occupation of Western Ukraine by the Red Army saw the confiscation of private enterprises including breweries. These were brought under state ownership and control. Beer continued to be produced but the command-driven and inefficient Soviet system did not prove conducive to producing quality beers.

When Ukraine became independent in 1991, the brewing industry experienced rapid growth and a number of popular domestic beers emerged on the Ukrainian market including Lvivske, Slavutych, Chernihivske, Obolon, Sarmat and Arsenal, amongst others. Within a short space of time, their popularity and profitability attracted the attentions of large foreign conglomerates, and it was not long before most of the largest breweries were absorbed by international brewing giants. Lvivske, Slavutych, Zhigulivske and Arsenal, for instance, are now owned by Carlsberg. Anheuser-Busch InBev owns Chernihivske and Sarmat as well as other Ukrainian brands. Obolon is the largest Ukrainian brewery that is still in Ukrainian hands. Their flagship brewery in the suburbs of Kyiv is the largest brewery in Europe and it is the leading exporter of Ukrainian beers.

There are of course some smaller craft breweries operating in Ukraine, and of late they have been growing in number and popularity, though their numbers lag far behind what we are currently seeing in Canada or North America in general.

But enough about the history of beer in Ukraine. Having lived and worked in Ukraine in recent decades, I can vouch for the fact that Ukraine beers are as good as any produced anywhere in the world. Unfortunately, the LCBO seems to have discontinued stocking Lvivske as well as any other beer from Ukraine. I have been unable to find any in any LCBO outlet for over a year. This, needless to say, is now adding to my stress levels, rather than helping to alleviate them.

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