New East Digital Archive

Burnt by the sun: a journey into Chuvashia, Russia’s hop-growing heartland

3 August 2016

A bee. And another one. Three seconds off the train and I’m already being swarmed. I rush across the platform towards a statue of Vasily Chapaev, the ruthless Red Army cavalryman. The statue’s horse-shaped shadow provides ample opportunity to absorb the moment and take a look around.

In front of me is Cheboksary Central, the city’s main gateway to the outside world. Adorned with shrubbery and overgrown flowerbeds, this cheerfully coloured Soviet palazzo crowns a vast and dusty square where bees and taxi drivers fight it out for their place under the gruelling sun. The clocks are ticking 10am and the temperature is already approaching the high twenties. It’s a particularly warm welcome to Chuvashia, an ancient land of myths and spirits.

Cheboksary, capital of Chuvashia, is a night train ride away from Moscow — like most other regional centres built on the flat expanses of European Russia. However, unlike other cities of the same stature, it looks and feels very different. In fact it’s hard to believe it wasn’t teleported here from another planet, or from a completely different era. Its squares are adorned with sphinx-shaped stone idols. Its trees, encircling perfectly mundane tower blocks, are often decorated with wilted ribbons and animal bones. Its shop windows are painted with intricate geometric ornaments, reminiscent of cuneiform script.

Hops have been harvested since time immemorial and beer traditionally worshipped as a ‘drink of the gods’

Defying centuries of Christianisation, the Chuvash are still largely a pagan people with colourful rituals and a pantheon of gods that make ancient Greece look like a spiritual backwater. Many historians trace their origins back to the Sarmatians, who introduced elements of Zoroastrianism into the already bubbling mixture of cultures and beliefs in the region. Zarathustra quickly blended in with a crowd of other deities. Perhaps even more surprising is that Chuvashia is also one of the world’s oldest beer-making nations where hops have been harvested since time immemorial and beer traditionally worshipped as a “drink of the gods”.

It is hops, rather than pagan rituals, that bring me to Chuvashia today. As an amateur beer-maker, I’ve been always fascinated by the diversity and complexity of the hop part of the beer equation. Hops have a vast repertoire of varying acidity and bitterness. They ooze contrasting aromas betraying thousands of possibilities. It was hops, particularly those of a bold, zesty character developed by American bioengineers in the 1970s, that unleashed the ongoing craft beer revolution. Few people know though that the breakthrough might never have happened if it wasn’t for the Chuvash scientists.

Kids in Cheboksary eagerly tucked into hop-flavoured ice-cream

Thanks to its history and unique microclimate — steep terrains and hot summers — Chuvashia was an obvious place for the USSR to stretch its beer muscles. Eager to quench the thirst of industry workers, the young proletarian state quickly turned this semi-autonomous republic into a hop-growing superpower. By the late 1980s local sovkhozes were producing almost 95% of all hops utilised in the Soviet beer industry. Hops were proclaimed Chuvashia’s “green gold”. There were so many of them that kids in Cheboksary eagerly tucked into hop-flavoured ice-cream while their parents treated themselves with miraculous hop-infused shampoos.

Hop-farming was quickly becoming a prestigious scientific discipline which demanded its own bureaucratic hierarchy. Thus the Soviets’ first hop research institute was established just outside of Cheboksary. Its inventions and experiments still reverberate across the planet. One of its signature products — a particularly flavoursome breed called Serebryanka — would inspire scientists at the University of Oregon to breed Cascade, a citrus-flavoured sort which has now become the most widely used hop by craft brewers. However it’s difficult to say how much Serebyanka could be traced in modern-day Cascade as there is hardly any of the former left in existence.

Home-brewed beer is often presented as a gift at weddings

It didn’t take too long, after the USSR’s collapse, for Chuvashia’s hop empire to evaporate almost without a trace. The international beer giants took Russian markets by storm in the early 1990s, sweeping away local factories and their supply chains. Out of 35,000 acres of hop fields grown in Chuvashia in the 1980s, there are hardly 200 still in use. Fortunately most of those precious square kilometres are cultivated as a study playground by the very same Chuvash Hop Institute which — like an ever-weakening signal from a decommissioned satellite — still pings traces of life back to earth.

My mobile phone has just received one of those pings. I get a call from the institute’s director, Andrey Fadeev, who is waiting to show me his green treasures outside of Tsivilsk, a town 20 miles away from Cheboksary. I jump in a taxi — Russian pop blasting from speakers, no air-con— and we speed off along a highway that zigzags between rolling hills. I ask the driver, Misha, if he has ever heard of the Chuvash hop miracle. “You must be kidding”, comes his answer. “I brew my own beer with it.” Misha tells me that the Chuvash people, particularly those who live in smaller towns and villages, tend to develop their own recipes and often hand-pick wild hops in the forests to produce a “live beer” that keep them hydrated and jovial throughout the year. Home-brewed beer is often presented as a gift at weddings and other critical occasions such as Seren — a pagan holiday on which evil spirits are expelled, accelerated by barrels of the gods’ drink and wild dancing.

‘Now the whole world is going crazy about aromatic hops. We can’t lose this opportunity’

Less than an hour into the woods and we come across a typical administrative building. Encrusted by elaborate murals featuring agricultural heroes of the past, the two-storey HQ of the Chuvash Hop Institute still holds the secrets of the deceased beer civilisation. I’m greeted by Fadeev himself, a talkative and constantly busy man in a beige suit who looks a bit like James Blunt would if he’d grown up on a Russian farm. I’m escorted into the dark green corridors of the institute guarded by solemn-looking portraits of its all-time best employees, mainly old women in blue gowns. Ushered past a couple of palm trees, I enter Fadeev’s spacious office, which is dominated by a table long enough to accommodate all of his best scientists at the same time.

We speak at length about the ill-fated history of Chuvash farming and the glimpses of promise offered by the rise of homegrown artisanal breweries. I challenge Fadeev’s optimism about bearded brewers from Moscow and St Petersburg investing in Chuvash farms. Fadeev counters by pointing out that medium-sized factories from the Urals and Siberia might consider Chuvashia as a viable alternative to European suppliers.

The director sounds like a man whose plan, which hadn’t quite worked for decades, has suddenly burst into action. Despite chronic underfunding and lack of fresh talent, the institute is doing surprisingly well. “I’m a scientist, a manager and an incidental businessman as I’m forced to provide for our staff”, sighs Fadeev. He remembers times when Chuvash hops were mocked abroad for being too smelly. “Now the whole world is going crazy about aromatic hops. We can’t lose this opportunity”, Fadeev says, his face breaking into a smile.

The man doesn’t waste any time. His institute has a vested interest in all sorts of recently launched ventures restoring parts of the Chuvash beer machinery. He is now building an alliance with a brand-new factory in Tsvilisk which will process delicate raw hops into long-lasting pellets. Does the future look more promising to him then? Fadeev sounds a note of caution: “I wouldn’t be too complacent. We need hundreds of tractors, modern equipment, young folks. Who would pay for that?”

We pass a sacral obelisk and after a few turns arrive in a vast field

To prove his point, Fadeev drives me into the fields, the source of his immeasurable pride and pain. We pass a sacral obelisk and after a few sweeping turns arrive in a vast field, the so-called “collection”. It would look like a vineyard slope if the hops weren’t so tall. The whole operation is served manually by a small group of scientists-cum-farmers, mostly women. They endure constant heat in the mid-thirties while studying and take care of the plants. I speak about the collection to Zoya Nikonova, one of these sunburnt academics who spent most of her life preserving the legacy of Chuvash hops. What exactly does she collect here? “We grow hundreds of hops which we bring to Chuvashia from all over the world — from New Zealand to Germany”, she says.

Nikonova explains that the collection is similar to Svalbard’s global seed vault in its mission to sustain a wide variety of plants for future generations. I ask her if her hop armoury contains the legendary Serebyanka. She takes me to a distant corner of the field.

She mentions ‘hints of blackcurrant’ and my imagination starts to swirl

Here she explains that Serebyanka, a semi-wild breed, hasn’t been terribly efficient to grow. But she also likes its aromas. She mentions “hints of blackcurrant” and my imagination starts to swirl. We stop in front of a row of indiscreet pale-looking stems. Not particularly spectacular except for their extraordinary history. This is the plant I’ve been long hunting for. I suddenly find myself in the very epicentre of the craft beer earthquake, concentrated on a small section of a picturesque field, a stone’s throw away from the Volga River.

On my way back to Cheboksary, I watch the merciless sun finally setting towards the horizon. Its soft glow lends the surrounding hills and approaching tower blocks an aura of suspense and forgiveness. I think of the scenes and conversations I’ve just witnessed. I recall the bronzed faces of women who struggle to safeguard their fragile artefacts against climate and history. Does it really matter whether these local hops ever break out beyond these little-known villages and farms? Would it please the local gods if their green treasures were kept intact? The Chuvash people have all time in the world to find out the answer.

Text: Igor Zinatulin
Image: Ivan Mikhailov