A style is born

Mark Dredge charts the course of a national beer style that has, in a relatively short time come to stand apart from its traditional namesake


In 2009, years before anything in Ukraine would be called a ‘craft beer,’ Dmytro Nekrasov, head brewer of Yuzivska, a small restaurant brewery in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, returned from a trip to Belgium inspired to make something new.

His beer, brewed for a drinker which only knew bright pale lager, was hazy gold, a sweet-tasting 7% ABV, lightly hopped, and it used a neutral brewing yeast, adding coriander seeds to evoke the spice of a Belgian-brewed beer. Nekrasov called it a Golden Ale. He can’t have anticipated it at the time, but he’d just brewed what would become Ukraine’s first unique beer style. 

Ukraine doesn’t have a long beer history, nor a deep beer culture, but a nascent movement of small or craft brewers grew from 2015. By that time, Nekrasov and Yuzivska’s co-founder, Vasyl Mikulin, had left Donetsk, forced out by the Russian invasion of 2014, and had started separate new breweries, Nakrasov in Dnipro, and Mikulin opened Varvar Brew in Kyiv. Both brewed a strongish and sweetish Golden Ale.

As more bars and drinkers became interested in craft beer in Ukraine, and more breweries opened, more versions of the style were made, with many becoming core year-round beers for brewers. Some added coriander seeds, including the new Varvar Golden Ale (incidentally, Ukraine is a major grower and exporter of coriander seeds). Some were filtered, others hazy. Some used a small amount of noble hops, others would be more aromatically hoppy, but they all shared a similar quality of moderately high alcohol (6%-7.5% ABV) and a rich malt flavour with residual sweetness.

He’d just brewed what would become Ukraine’s first unique beer style

Those drinking characteristics separated the Ukrainian Golden Ale from the British Golden Ale (which is lower alcohol and more bitter) and Belgian Golden Ale (often stronger, drier, with a fruity or spicy yeast), and gave local drinkers an unchallenging everyday kind of beer. As the increasing number of Ukrainian brewers started making modern fruity sours, hazy IPAs and pastry stouts, Golden Ale became the normal beer in this new craft beer environment, a stepping stone style from mainstream lagers, similar enough to be familiar but also different enough to be interesting, with drinkers liking its extra alcohol content and lasting malt sweetness.

It wasn’t seen by many as a Ukrainian speciality (imposter syndrome or a beer inferiority complex held Ukrainians back from that assumption), but as their beer culture emerged in earnest, the uniquely Ukrainian type of Golden Ale was one of its foundational beer styles. And it’s a style that the wider beer world had little knowledge of. 

It’s a “locally confined treasure,” explains Lana Svitankova, a Ukrainian beer writer, beer judge and ambassador for Varvar Brew. Seeing the popularity of the style in her homeland, but aware that it was unknown to the rest of the world, in the middle of 2021 she joined efforts with the Ukrainian Association of Independent Breweries to celebrate and promote the beer, with the aim of having it approved as an official style by the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP), an arbiter of beer which produces detailed beer style guidelines.

The group tasted 13 different Ukrainian-brewed Golden Ales, noticing how there was a consistent sweeter malt flavour to all of them, while allowing for individual brewery preference in the hopping of the beer and the addition of coriander seeds. From that tasting, they wrote a style guide entry on the beer’s characteristics and its history, hoping that with a BJCP entry the style would gain the international recognition which many Ukrainians in the beer industry thought it deserved.

What the quantitives of a style guide overlooks are the qualitatives of a beer’s cultural role. “It’s an accessible beer style,” says Svitankova, an everyday kind of beer which a lot of people love to drink, where its sweeter qualities suit the Ukrainian palate. It’s important because people drink a lot of it. 

“To have a local style, I think it’s enough to be popular and long-living in the place where you drink it,” says Svitankova, “but to verify it [with the BJCP], we need traces of the style,” she says. “There wasn’t any trace of Golden Ale before we started talking about collabs.”

PHOTO: Varvar Brew

As part of this process, Svitankova and Varvar Brew’s Martin Dawson began contacting brewers to see if they’d be interested in collaborating on a beer with Varvar, helping to increase knowledge of the style. It was never a direct approach asking to brew Ukrainian-style Golden Ale, but they’d explain the style and its characteristics, and brewers were always excited by the idea of making a new beer style. By the end of 2021, they’d lined up half a dozen brews in the UK and US.

“We thought it was really cool and special, and agreed,” says Suzie Compton, owner of Midwest Coast Brewing in Chicago, who was born in Odessa, Ukraine. Compton liked how Svitankova had described this as an opportunity for Ukrainians to “finally find the courage to claim the style as our own and stop feeling inferior because we’re not a ‘proper beer-country.’”

With that brew, plus several others in the diary, Svitankova submitted the style proposal to the BJCP in January 2022, hoping that the beer world would soon know all about Ukraine. But then something much bigger happened, and the whole world knew about Ukraine, and not because of the beer. 

“The war started and everything was paused,” says Compton. Beer became totally insignificant. But as time passed, there was a growing solidarity being shown by the beer industry, and beer became something which could have significance, even in a small way. “We were more than determined to make this [collaboration brew] work and it took on a different meaning.” The beer, which was brewed as planned and included coriander seeds, was released on 15th May at a charity launch event, and raised over $11,000 for the Global Disaster Relief team.

Elsewhere, the other brewers who Dawson had arranged collaborations with also still wanted to brew the beer, and all now had similar plans to donate profits towards relief efforts. “We didn’t want to do this because of the current situation. We wanted to do it on its own merits,” says Dawson, so this isn’t a sentimental move, but the positive sentiment shown towards Ukraine is helping to move the style forward, and giving a positive story for Ukraine. Plus brewers are genuinely interested in the beer style. 

“We wanted to brew something that’s very popular in Ukraine and bring it over to the UK,” says Ben Cleary, founder of Newcastle’s Full Circle Brew Co. “That’s the fun in brewing – to be able to create something that’s a bit different, and that goes down incredibly well in a different nation, in the hope that you end up creating a new style for your own demographic.” The circumstance meant that it came with a new story, but under-pinning that was a real story of a real local beer style that is loved by Ukrainian drinkers. And it’s easy to see why when you drink it.

“It’s a crowd-pleaser,” says Cleary. “It’s very, very drinkable,” he says. “Everyone I’ve spoken to has really enjoyed it, and they enjoyed having something that was a pale ale in look and in flavour, but had that moreish nature, which was very much from the residual sugar.” That richness of malt, and a fuller texture, makes it very satisfying to drink. Full Circle’s version is hazier than most Ukrainian brews, and more aromatically hopped, with the sweetness adding more to the beer’s texture.

PHOTO: Varvar Brew

Elsewhere, Saugatuck Brewing in Douglas, Michigan, who had brewed beers with Varvar in Kyiv, brewed a Ukrainian Golden Ale and wrote on their Facebook page how: ‘This collaboration was intended to highlight the graciousness and hospitality which we received throughout our time in Ukraine, and has now grown to have a greater meaning’; Forbidden Root in Chicago (who’s owner has Ukrainian heritage) used Vietnamese coriander and noble hops; Ossett Brewery used coriander seed in theirs, and served it on cask – the first and only (so far) to be served this way; Newbarns, based in Leith, used a special blend of hops sold under the brand Trident, a symbol of Ukraine; for the Liverpool Craft Beer Expo held in June, a collaboration took place with all of the city’s brewers, and made Vyshyvanka (named after Ukraine’s embroidered national clothing), with coriander seeds and Citra hops; and there’s been a brew in Denmark, with one planned in Chile. 

Dawson has been present for most of the brews, getting to share the story and the brewing processes. “It’s really cool seeing what different people have done with it, and how it tastes and comparing them,” he says. And he’s having more breweries contacting him to say they also want to brew a Ukrainian-style Golden Ale. 

The proposal to BJCP hasn’t yet been decided upon, but the more it’s brewed and drunk, the more likely it is to be recognised in the wider beer world, and there are hopes that it’ll be added as an official style on the app Untappd soon. More than anything else, it’s raising awareness of Ukrainian craft beer, which might have been forced into a hiatus, but it’ll return, perhaps with a new patriotism and celebration of their most unique and normal Ukrainian craft beer style. 

“The more I see the word Ukrainian everywhere, the happier I am,” says Svitankova. “It’s proof that we can have something of our own, and share it with the world. It was a treasure contained in the Ukraine for 13 years, and it’s high time to share.”

On 6 June 2022, during the writing of this article, Yaroslav Prokopenko, one of Varvar’s brewers, was killed defending his homeland. Слава Україні!

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