14 November 2014, 12:36
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Armenia’s Beer Industry: Ready for Take Off?

Did you know that one of the earliest mentions of beer production in ancient history, dating around 5th century B.C., came out of Armenia? Unlike Armenia’s cognac, however, beer companies in Armenia don’t have a charming contemporary tale to spin their brand towards international audiences. This past October, ImYerevan attended an “Armenian beer festival” at the Congress Hotel in Yerevan event sponsored by Austrian Airlines and here are our reflections on the event and what it said to us about the current state of aff-‘airs’ in the beer industry here.

Armenia’s alcohol industry – where to start?

Let’s begin where most Armenians do: cognac. If you haven’t heard about the 1945 Churchill-Stalin exchange by now, then you’re probably not too familiar with Armenia in general. Cognac, alongside the Kardashians, are perhaps the country’s most well-known (not to mention, perservering) contemporary brands.

Here’s a chummy shot of Josef Stalin (left) and Winston Churchill (right), drinking buddies at the Yalta Conference in 1945. Photo from http://www.standard.co.uk/news/uk/first-chance-to-buy-brandy-that-stalin-served-churchill-7582925.html.Here’s a chummy shot of Josef Stalin (left) and Winston Churchill (right), drinking buddies at the Yalta Conference in 1945. Photo from http://www.standard.co.uk/news/uk/first-chance-to-buy-brandy-that-stalin-served-churchill-7582925.html.

However, what you may not be aware of is that Kim Kardashian is half-Italian (*GASP*).

Being half-Armenian, half-Italian, Armenians sadly cannot lay claim to all of Kim Kardashian’s good genes. Photo from http://abcnews.go.com/topics/business/companies/krispy-kreme.htm/Being half-Armenian, half-Italian, Armenians sadly cannot lay claim to all of Kim Kardashian’s good genes. Photo from http://abcnews.go.com/topics/business/companies/krispy-kreme.htm/

Additionally, Churchill’s beloved brandy, a special supply called ‘Dvin’ requested by Stalin for the Yalta Conference, is no longer even produced. In fact, according to this article, the rights to the Yerevan Brandy Company that yielded it have long since been sold to a French company, Pernod-Ricard. 

A picture of Churchill’s beloved Armenian brandy, Dvin, no longer in production. Photo from http://www.masterofmalt.com/other-grape-brandy/yerevan-brandy-company/ararat-dvin-30-year-old-other-grape-brandy/A picture of Churchill’s beloved Armenian brandy, Dvin, no longer in production. Photo from http://www.masterofmalt.com/other-grape-brandy/yerevan-brandy-company/ararat-dvin-30-year-old-other-grape-brandy/

But all of that doesn’t stop many from riding on the coat-tails of the historic reputation of Armenia’s brandy, even as its companies are usurped by dominant Eastern and Western ones and the quality of its products allegedly diminish each year. So, we wondered, how are other sectors of the alcohol industry faring in Armenia these days?

Perhaps a lesser-known story concerns Armenia’s history with beer. Did you know that one of the earliest mentions of beer production in ancient history, dating around 5th century B.C., came out of Armenia? Unlike Armenia’s cognac, however, there is has been no charming contemporary tale for beer companies to spin as a branding strategy. So unfortunately, today, Armenia’s beer industry is far from achieving the potential of its 2000-year-old counterpart.

We bring this up now because we attended an event where we reflected on the state of Armenia’s alcohol industry and how it is affected by this selective memory problem. Particularly as a country abundant in wheat (evident by HDIF’s recent Wheat Festival initiative in Vardenis), what we’re wondering is this: How has this market gone overlooked? 

This past October, the Congress Hotel hosted an “Armenian beer festival” event sponsored by Austrian Airlines. According to Austrian Airlines’ representative and events coordinator in Armenia, the event originated out of a benevolent desire to extend the Western European tradition of Oktoberfest to Armenia. Unfortunately, the event was very not well-attended. While some obstacles were out of organizers’ control (i.e. the weather was extremely poor, the event happened to fall on the same day as the famous Areni Wine Festival), there were other areas which we felt could have been easily avoided.

Even before attending the event, we were suspicious. First, we wondered, what does term “Armenian Beer Festival” really mean?

On one hand, it could quite literally be:

1. A festival of only Armenian beers, in which the tasting selection would be limited to that which has been produced and brewed in-country. This could still be offer a unique and diversifying experience… If Armenia’s beer industry didn’t revolve around three dominating corporations (Kotayk, Kilikia, and Gyumri), which operate with little to no competition from smaller, micro-breweries.

Or, on the other, less literal hand, it could be:

2. A beer-tasting festival where locals come to expose themselves to new beers and breweries, similar to ones we’ve attended in other countries. In this scenario, the festival would Armenian only in the sense that it was a beer festival, like any other, that just so happened to be taking place in Armenia.

Is it obvious we hoped for the latter? Not simply because we like to diversify our palettes, but because we believe think implementing events that bring new and unfamiliar information and ideas into the country – whether its beer or break-dancing – benefits Armenian society on so many levels.

However, it appeared that Austrian Airlines’ benevolence in hosting the event (despite being a country that in 2012 ranked second in per capita beer consumption) appeared to have a pretty short leash. The only cargo they imported for the event was the tradition of Oktoberfest itself. No foreign beers were present at the event, Austrian or otherwise. The event didn’t even host all three Armenian beers that night, only serving Kotayk and Kilikia.

We suggested to the Event’s Coordinator that perhaps, in the future, the airlines might consider the including foreign beers in the event, and perhaps even Austrian ones and she indicated that she was hopeful about diversifying the selection in the future. Additionally, she mentioned plans about making the event more accessible to the community, not simply taking place within the comfortable confines of a hotel. For these reasons, we perhaps hope for a more whole-hearted effort next year.

We don’t want to seem like attending one event makes us experts on all things beer-related in Yerevan. These are just observations. Some make a fir argument that for a small country like Armenia, having three successful beer companies is an achievement to be proud of. And we don’t disagree! 

However, this event left much to be desired and we’re writing about it now because we’re not convinced anyone else saw it as an opportunity to rally for change. As much as we love being reminded about Armenia’s former glory, we don’t think that should stop us from discussing its contemporary shortcomings. Because rather than passively waiting, we should all be actively asking with an edge of concern why industries, like beer, have not yet taken flight. 

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