Lana Svitankova comes from the capital of Ukraine and started only to her honeymoon with the theme of beer. It was then that she got to know Czech beers and fell in love with the barley juice. Further trips to Belgium and other beer countries followed until she became the first Certified Cicerone in Ukraine to become a beer professional. She now works for founder Vasily Mikulin’s Varvar Brewery. There, they even developed their own Ukrainian beer style, Ukrainian Golden Ale, strong, sweet and with a hint of coriander. Lana also translated several classics of craft beer literature into Ukrainian and has already written her own books and articles. In the podcast, we talk about her story and the current situation just days after the Russian invasion of her homeland…
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Markus Raupach: Hello, and welcome to our podcast BierTalk. Today we have another episode in our English version of the BierTalk and we have a nice guest from the Eastern European region. We have Lana Svitankova from Ukraine, but she’s living in Switzerland. Of course, we now have very special days thinking about Ukraine. We are also talking about her and her beer relationship and her beer scene, and what she does with beer, but also about the actual situation of Ukraine. But Lana, first, maybe you introduce yourself and let us know something about you.
Lana Svitankova: Hello, Markus, hello, all listeners. I’m super happy to be invited here and I’m really honoured and humbled to be with you today. My name is Lana and I’ve been working in beer for, I guess, five or six, six years already. I’m a talking head for Varvar Brew in Kyiv. So usually I do all the communication stuff, introductions, international collaborations, helping them to connect to another world, in other countries, meeting new people. Also I do some educational work in Ukrainian and translate books into Ukrainian from English. So I usually do whatever I can to promote beer culture in Ukraine as well, telling people that beer is not just usual yellow, bubbly stuff, but way more. Not only about flavours of beer, but also wonderful world of beer people who are ready, come to your help anytime. These days, I’m extremely happy to be in this industry, because I’m getting so much words of support and actions of support, and I’m incredibly thankful for that.
Markus Raupach: Maybe let’s start with your personal beer history. So can you remember when you had your first beer and what then brought you into the really beer world that you got deeper and deeper in it?
Lana Svitankova: It’s quite easy. I remember that glass of beer really good because it was one of my first trips to Europe. It was a honeymoon trip to Prague and there I drank a glass of dark master. So I was super impressed and my thought was like, beer can be something like this. I need to know more about that. So it was almost 14 years ago and since then, I keep thinking about beer, talking about beer and writing about beer. So that was one of, I don’t know, like the eye opening moment. I think the second was Rodenbach. I said like, “This is not beer,” and I still really like this beer as an example of not beer. But it is. So this is the surprise which can jump at you and you either like it or not. But you won’t be ever thinking of beer in the same way as you thought before.
Markus Raupach: Yes, and that’s really the great range between if you have the typical bohemian easy drinking lager and then you have the Rodenbach, the sour beers and special beers with all these wood taste and not easy drinking but with a lot of aroma and very, very interesting and very special. So I really can understand this and then you got into beer as a beer drinker and what brought you then for to working for the industry? Also you’re now a journalist, you had books about beer. How did that come?
Lana Svitankova: Basically, I just, I like flavourful stuff. I like food. I like beer. So I continue to explore it on my own. When I like something I want to know everything about it. So I started reading books. I don’t think there were movies that time, but I think it was mostly books and all my vacations eventually turned into beer-cations. So everything was rotating around beer. I looked for breweries when I travelled somewhere. I’ve been looking for special kinds of beer like beer which is produced only in this country or in this exact city. So yeah, I drank a lot and I am not ashamed of that. Because I was so curious about all things beer, then the first craft beer started beer in Ukraine. I was super keen to know more about that as well and I got to know the owner of a brewery I’m working for. I approached him and asked like, “Do you want to make a beer running club?” So basically the brewery is located not far from a small lake and then you run from a brewery and do a one circle around the lake, it will be a five-kilometre distance. So he said, “Yeah, if you’re organising that, I’m all hands for it.” So once in two weeks, we gathered at the brewery, change into our running gear, took a five-kilometre run and then everybody got their special medal, a free glass of beer. It also was a desire to show that people who drink beer, they’re not like, you know, like the stereotypical thing that people who drink beer, they just drink it on the sofa, watching TV, doing nothing and beer is like a reason for obesity and everything like that. So they’re not fit. They don’t like sports. It’s just not true because like we’ve been running and then we drank beer. We talked about beery things, we talk about like beer travels as well and it was like a really, really nice time. After a few months, Vasil, who’s the owner, approached me and asked me to join the team. So that’s how it happened. Since then, I’ve been doing so much stuff more and more and they’ve been so supportive about that. So yeah, I am like heels over the head in love with beer and I do what I love, I love what I do and I don’t see myself stopping anywhere in the nearest future. I want to keep doing that as long as I can.
Markus Raupach: You’re really unstoppable with that. So I really can approve that and we’ll come back to that in a second. Maybe just one thing, you talked about that you came to be with the honeymoon and you make beer holidays out of your normal vacations. But you have your husband. What does he say? Is it that, does he say, “Okay, that was always my dream?” Or does he say, “Oh God?” What is his opinion?
Lana Svitankova: Oh, I have to say I’m very lucky because he also likes beer. Well, it was a drink of choice from the very beginning. So we don’t drink like distils, almost never. But we started exploring distils because we want to know what the drinks are which makes so good bottles to H Beer. So he likes the beer, he enjoys beer as well. So it makes easier to taste more beer, so I don’t have to finish a bottle myself, we always share it. So it’s very nice and very convenient.
Markus Raupach: That’s good. So you have, you can drink more different beers, and you can enjoy it together. So that’s always a nice thing. Perfect. Maybe a last thing about that, you now live in Switzerland. What is the beer culture in Switzerland? Do you feel comfortable with that? Or is it a little bit strange? What is the beer there?
Lana Svitankova: Well, I have to be honest, I was extremely surprised and I got to know that Switzerland is a country with the highest number of breweries per capita in the world. Because they have so many breweries. Mostly, they are super small, super local and tiny, located in small cities, or even villages, and you can only try their beers when you go there. So I really like this thing to go somewhere, to explore new places and to try new beers. So I have a small map, like a Google Map, and I’m pointing breweries I’ve been already. So it’s about a bit more than 100 already into here. So it’s a, you know, like a quest of sorts. The type of beers which are popular, mostly it’s like a lot of like German style beers, like Bell’s Lager. Some produce more modern styles like IPAs and the French-speaking part is more into wild sour beers. I think it because they I make a lot of wines there and the palate is more accustomed to kind of this kind of flavour. So yeah, it’s also very varied and interesting, and you can always find something for yourself, no matter which beer you prefer.
Markus Raupach: That sounds interesting and like also a big variety, and if you compare that with the Ukrainian beer scene, at least as it was until one week before, how would you describe that? Was it quiet in the beginning? Or did it already reach a certain point? Which beers did they mainly or do they mainly produce that varies the palate of the Ukrainians?
Lana Svitankova: So I think we should start from the very beginning. Basically, the first brewery which called itself craft brewery, was founded in 2012. It was a contract brewery. So basically, it was two guys brewing at a small brewing site of restaurant brewery, which produced, you know, like this classical restaurant pub style beers like pale lager, weak beer and dark lager, for example, maybe porter. So they used that system to brew more interesting, unusual beers. They brewed IPAs, porter stouts and later in 2015, we had the first wave of craft breweries, which brewed more, I don’t know, like, more brave styles, I would say. Because usually yes, in Ukraine, people mostly drink mass market lager. But I have to say they have a sweet tooth. So mass market lagers, they are more I would say on the Czech style lagers, more malty, so more sweet. Not that like crisp and dry as German lagers. So one of the first beers, which were super popular, at least at the brewery I worked for, was golden ale and milk stout. Both of them are kind of sweet. So like, it was 60% of all the brewery brewed and it still is. So people really like sweet beer. But if we are talking about now, I mean, until a few days ago, we have craft beer, which is available in supermarket, which is more accessible, not that aggressively experimental I would say. But also we have a part of craft beer, which is like, hugely weird. Now we have a small, geeky audience which can consume whatever you brew. So it doesn’t matter if you add, I don’t know, the most crazy ingredients. Like we had recently a beer which emulated borscht. So it was a beer with beetroot, black pepper, lactobacillus for sour cream. So they can drink whatever you do and it’s really good because it gives breweries a freedom to play with ingredients. But at the same time, usually they never brew the same beer again. So this is good and this is bad at the same time for me at least. I would like breweries to at least brew the beers people like a lot, because sometimes you drink something, you really like it and you can’t drink that ever again because they are going do the next one, next one, next one. So yeah, it’s a bit like I would say, it’s steady in this sense. There is accessible beers, which get more people in craft, who open new beer for them. Like I really like to call this not even a craft but a new wave of beer. So it doesn’t matter which style they brew. Like it’s different. It’s something different. They never had that before. Another part is like hugely experimental stuff. Previously, then something new happened in the world and everybody started copying that. I would say maybe a gap of two or three years had to be closed before it comes to Ukraine. But now, whenever happens, whatever new technique or whenever new style or variety of beers, it’s there. For example, we already had even like this cold brew, cold IPAs, or this, how do they name it? Like oat cream IPAs, which Other Half in US does. So like we have it all. So we are trying to be like super progressive and super experimental as well. So this is what distinguishes it a bit from Switzerland. So here, they don’t have this like booming market for like this crazy stuff, I guess for now.
Markus Raupach: You also have in Ukraine, manufacturers of brewery equipment. So as far as I know, there are many German brewers and craft brewers who got their equipment from Ukrainian companies. So that’s also interesting that there’s also the knowledge about how to make brewing systems.
Lana Svitankova: It’s also a really interesting thing, because in Ukraine, a lot of people still think that all the best stuff is imported. It doesn’t matter if it’s equipment, if it’s beer. So people are eager to pay more money for imported beer, even if it’s an IPA, which sat I don’t know how long in a container crossing the Atlantic. Than a locally brewed IPA, which is super fresh, just from the fermenter. But like we are trying to move with that and to explain to people that this is fresher, this is better. But bit by bit they begin to understand that themselves. They just compare tastes and yeah, that’s it. So this is the same with equipment. I think it’s cheaper for European brewers as well, but I think like all the people, all the brewers who strive for, I don’t know, recognition maybe, almost all of them use imported equipment. But we also have really great engineers. So for example, at Varvar we assembled our first brewery ourselves. So it was like 500 litres brewing kettle, and 500 litres fermenters. We assembled it ourselves. Now we have a bigger system, but this system, which is smaller, we use it for experimental brews and for sour program.
Markus Raupach: As Ukraine is such a big country, so it is almost as big as whole western Europe, can you still say it’s more or less one beer culture? Or is there also a difference between maybe the western part, the eastern part, the central, the different palates or different ideas of beer?
Lana Svitankova: Oh, I don’t think so because everybody’s mostly drinking the same. If we’re talking about maybe tradition of consumption alcohol drinks, I wouldn’t say we have a drink of preference. So like, in every region, people drink everything with alcohol, like beet kvass, beet cider, beet mead, beer, wine, or distils. We have everything because Ukraine is such a huge country, like as you said, we have a beer belt for growing or producing or enjoying beer. We have a wine belt in the south, and we have a vodka belt in the north. So basically we have everything with alcohol.
Markus Raupach: You already wrote books or also translated books and comics. Did you do it in Ukrainian or in Russian and how did that work? How did the people react on your books?
Lana Svitankova: So I translate everything into Ukrainian because previously, we mostly had no literature about beer in Ukrainian. So I think there was one book which was translated specifically for Carlsberg for internal usage, but I don’t remember any like specific books on beer. So in 2017, when we’ve done Randy Mosher Tasting Beer, it was basically the first beer encyclopaedia in Ukrainian. I do this to promote beer culture and my language. So this is like two birds with one stone. People were like, I thought like how many people would buy a book about beer in Ukrainian. Actually, I know for sure that the next one, comic, which was about history of beer, is in its second round already. So people are interested in that and it makes a nice gift for, I don’t know, for some celebration birthday or whatever. I think I have never heard anybody being unhappy about using Ukrainian for that. So we have three books already and I have a fourth translated, but I’m looking for a publisher for that. But yeah, that will have to wait obviously. Also, I’ve done a book myself about beer tending. So basically, we had this problem with places, bars, pubs, venues which serve beer, but sometimes it’s not properly done. Barmen don’t have enough knowledge about beer, about styles, about like courtesy, or just like how to pour beer. So everybody’s saying, like, “Where can we get this information, because like, we don’t speak English, we can’t find anything to read about that.” So I wanted to write like a small booklet, just a short one, so this is how it’s done in simple words, without being too, you know, technical or too snobbish. Because like people don’t like when you try to tell them like you are doing this, like this and doing that, like that. So this is how it should be done. So I tried to be as friendly as possible and this small leaflet turned into 300 words, so basically, it’s 100 pages. A friend of mine, he helped me to make it like good, nice looking PDF out of that and his wife made illustrations for that. So we made this book and we called it like A Small Book of Beer Tending and it’s available for free. So now nobody can find an excuse, “I don’t have anything to read or like, I don’t earn enough money for education,” or whatever. So it’s done and it’s free, and people download it and they use it for their stuff in venues. Also, I’ve heard that people who are just interested in beer, enjoy reading it, because it’s like, it’s not only about beer tending in terms like, you have to be a sommelier, or barman or server of beer. They just read it to expand their knowledge. We plan to print it like in a hard copy, but yes, again, everything happened. So a bit later, a bit.
Markus Raupach: So you came into being in these two worlds, I think. So you get more and more often to go to the Ukraine. So how often have you been there in the last month or the last year?
Lana Svitankova: Well, basically, before Covid I went like, each two months. After Covid I haven’t been there for I think a year and a half. But we met over Zooms and in chats, using all the, thank you modern technologies for connecting us. So now I don’t know.
Markus Raupach: Do you know about your family? Are they safe? Your friends? Or do you know anything about what’s going on?
Lana Svitankova: I’m keeping in touch with them all the time and for now, my family and my friends, brewery team are unhurt. Hopefully it will stay this way. So like yeah, I was super nervous and basically freaking out this two days. But yeah, now I’m a bit calmer because a lot of good news are coming in and beer industry friends helping, offering help, housing for people, jobs, financial support. They almost made me cry with happiness.
Markus Raupach: This is really great to hear and to see how the beer world also comes together and closes in and tries to get support and to help the Ukrainian brewers and also to be on their side. You read many things they do. They raise money, they offer opportunities and things. So that’s really, really good to hear. But in general, were you surprised about the development? Or did you expect that it’s such a big scale aggression?
Lana Svitankova: Well, we live in, like a modern world. Like nobody doing that. So I think, I know some friends of mine were saying, like, “We expected that. We told you. Like, be prepared.” But you know, I think it’s kind of a brain thing. You just can’t process something like that. You don’t believe it. So like, we’ve been in denial all the time. So it’s something unbelievable, like, even now, sometimes I feel detached, like I’m watching an apocalyptical movie. So it’s so hard to believe this is going on, actually, right now. So yes, for me, it was a surprise for me. But in terms like this happened, I’m not surprised this is possible in, how to say this? I’m not surprised by his action, but I’m surprised by the thing, which is, like the crossing the border. So yeah.
Markus Raupach: What I think is, all he did in the last eight years brought more and more the Ukrainian people away from Russia and more into Europe. So do you think that that is also a process that may be continuing whatever will happen?
Lana Svitankova: To be honest, I’m not sure what to say about that. But yeah, Ukrainian people would never want to go back into the arms of Russia, that’s for sure. Especially now, never again that so many people died. Actually the war started eight years ago and like that time, everybody said, like we don’t want to do and to have anything in common. But now, like, it’s the whole country. Because like, I don’t know what Vasil feels now and the whole team of Varvar like, who founded the brewery, because they had to flee from Donetsk eight years ago. So they started anew in Kyiv and now they have to relive this nightmare. So yeah, people would never forget.
Markus Raupach: Today, you have been to the UN building in Geneva and you were the demonstration. So what were your impressions from the people there? What did they say? How was the mood?
Lana Svitankova: I was extremely happy to see a lot of locals and a lot of people from different countries. I’ve seen flags of Lithuania, I think Polish flags. I think Georgian flags, Slovakian people are supporting this and you know, it’s such a relief to understand that people are not silent about this. Because eight years ago, the world was mostly silent about that and now they’re so loud. They express their support, they demand actions from the government. They help, again sending money, accepting people to their homes who flee from Ukraine. They have helped refugees. I would be happier then, I wouldn’t know people are so good, because of the circumstances. But now I’m extremely happy and proud about humanity in general.
Markus Raupach: The world now is starting to stand together. Maybe that’s also something if people which are listening to us, and they want to help, do you know a good way how to help someone who’s raising money where you could maybe visit a special website or another possibility for people who want to help?
Lana Svitankova: There is a huge number of charities and even National Bank of Ukraine established a special bank account which accepts all the financial aid. Anybody can give from anywhere in the world. It’s multi-currency account, so you can go and donate there. You can go and rally for, at the meetings, demonstrations, you can write your representative in parliament, government, demanding actions. I think everybody can do something on the personal level. I know that it won’t be fair to call for this, but as a beer person, I would never ever set my foot again in any venue or shop selling Russian beer, or any event inviting Russian breweries. You can do the same. You can just ignore or just even say, “No, I won’t buy this because this money goes for aggression.”
Markus Raupach: That’s maybe the only consequence you can really make out of this. So thanks a lot from my side and I wish of course all the best for you and for your family, for your friends and also try to help wherever I can. Also to our listeners, we will put the links on the show notes so you can also follow this. I hope we can meet again and talk about Ukrainian beer in a better situation.
Lana Svitankova: It is better to meet in Kyiv and raise the glass and drink some normal or some super exciting experimental beers. We have really nice beer. We have nice places. We have nice people. Come visit after all this.
Markus Raupach: Thanks a lot.
Lana Svitankova: Thank you.
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