When Austrian aristocrat and entrepreneur Alfred von Volcano founded the Zhiguli Brewery in the Volga port city of Samara in 1881, little did he know he would go on to create the most iconic beer brand of Soviet times. But that is exactly what he did.
Originally labelled as a Viennese beer, Zhigulevskoye was true to the style – golden, crisp and subtlety malty. Made with a high calibre of raw ingredients and water from the Volga, which at that time was revered for its cleanliness and fresh taste, the beer brand began to make a name for itself.
By the turn of the century, von Volcano’s beer had gained a reputation as a quality libation, being made for export and stocked in high calibre restaurants throughout the Volga region.
When Bolsheviks stormed Samara during the Russian Revolution in 1917 and finally took control of the city in 1918, the brewery fell under state control and von Volcano was exiled to Austria, where he eventually died in 1929.
Prior to the revolution, Russia produced various varieties of beer according to Western standards. Russian made pilsners, Bavarian, Munich and Viennese were all readily available throughout the nation. During the reform however, around the mid 1930s, these labels were considered bourgeois and state officials ordered name changes to reflect Soviet ideals. Pilsners became Russkoe, Munichs changed to Ukrainskoe; each style of beer adopted a Soviet name. Taking its name from the Zhiguli Hills, the nearby mountain range that entwines with the Volga, the Viennese beer lost its European title and Zhigulevskoye was born.
Several beers were produced in the USSR, manufactured in Russia and across the Soviet states. Along with Zhigulevskoe, Russkoe, Moskovskoe, Ukrainskoe, Leningradskoe, Martovskoe, Porter and Karamelnoe were the seven other initial major players in the early Soviet beer scene.
Initially brewing was unstandardised, but, as part of the economic reform as outlined by the Five Year Plan, beer production was pushed. Weathering grain shortages and political tumult, Zhigulevskoe was often the only available beer on the market, and at times accounted for up to 90 per cent of Russian brewed beer. As a result it became to be known as a reliable steady across the USSR.
Since the dismantling of the Soviet Union, many breweries throughout the former communist state continue to brew Zhigulevskoye, including Baltika and Carlsberg in the Ukraine, although true Zhigulevskoye brew is considered to only come from Samara.
Today the original brewery still stands close to the banks of the Volga and still produces the beer. And while the brew nowadays holds little resemblance to the beer it once was, it is still recognised as a trusted brand, still prevalent across Russia, drunk by people warmed by an old faithful companion.