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Why Ukrainian brewers are pushing for a new style of beer

Although efforts to codify Ukrainian golden ale started before Russia’s invasion, the ongoing war has lent potent impetus to official recognition

The Ukrainian golden ale originated in Donetsk in 2009.
The Ukrainian golden ale originated in Donetsk in 2009. (Photo by, Freepik)

In the months following Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, US businesses were eager to show support for the besieged nation by flying flags of blue and gold. Few industries were more enthusiastic than craft beer. The bright hues were emblazoned on tap handles, and beers named Brew for Ukraine, Resist and Putin Huylo (a Ukrainian insult) were brewed to raise awareness of the war and relief funds for its victims. Some brewmasters even produced the native Ukrainian golden ale.

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But when drinkers curious to learn more about this hazy, malt-forward wheat ale looked to enthusiast site Untappd, the US-based Brewer’s Association or even the international Beer Judge Certification Program, they found something odd: Ukrainian golden ale didn’t officially exist.

Lana Svitankova, 41, has spent the past three years working to change this. A beer writer and Ukraine’s first certified cicerone (beer sommelier), she has been working with Ukrainian brewers and industry professionals in the US, the UK and the rest of Europe to gain worldwide recognition for Ukrainian golden ale. As her homeland endures a third year of conflict, the effort to establish a Ukrainian brewing identity has taken on fresh meaning and momentum.

Svitankova understands the industry’s reluctance to acknowledge Ukrainian golden ale. She was a skeptic once, too.

Ukraine has no real brewing tradition to speak of. Much like the US and most of the beer-drinking world, the country has long relied on mass-produced pale lagers such as Lvivske 1715 (owned by Danish megabrewer Carlsberg AS), Chernigivske Svitle (Anheuser-Busch InBev NV) and Kyiv-based Obolon Lager.

It wasn’t until Svitankova’s 2008 honeymoon in Prague that she discovered the joys of a malty Czech dark lager, an experience that would change the trajectory of her life.

“It’s a love story,” says Svitankova, referring to this smitten-at-first-sip moment with beer (with apologies to her newlywed husband). “Because we don’t have a specific beer history, we don’t have any frame of reference. We were raised to believe beer has to be this one thing.”

Svitankova made it her mission to discover beers beyond those homogenous, light-tasting lagers and to write about her adventures on her blog and for various beer publications. She also studied and passed the test to become Ukraine’s first certified beer judge.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian brewers were having their own epiphanies. In 2009, a year after Svitankova’s hoppy honeymoon, an adventurous Donetsk brewery owner named Vasyl Mikulin sent his brewmaster Dmytro Nekrasov to Belgium in hopes of broadening his imagination to look beyond the strict German brewing rules he’d been following; the more than 500-year-old Reinheitsgebot, or purity law, says beer can consist only of water, hops, barley and yeast.

According to Svitankova, Nekrasov returned willing and eager to experiment with different yeasts, hops, and even sugars and spices. One result was an unfiltered strong ale, hazy gold in appearance, that was much fuller bodied and sweeter than its Belgian forebears. Nekrasov added a touch of coriander, one of Ukraine’s chief exports, for lemony, spicy finish.

The easy-drinking golden ale (not yet dubbed “Ukrainian”) proved a hit among patrons, with the recipe slowly trickling out to other breweries that Nekrasov consulted. In 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and invaded Donetsk, Nekrasov and Mikulin were forced to leave the region and their business—the brewer to Dnipro, the owner to Kyiv—further contributing to the geographic spread of the increasingly popular style. Mikulin eventually started Varvar Brew, which would become a standard-bearer of Ukraine’s still nascent craft beer industry.

In 2016 Svitankova joined Varvar as an event coordinator and ambassador. “I wasn’t impressed,” she says of her first taste of Ukrainian golden ale. “I’d had so much weirder stuff in my experience with craft beer. But I learned to take styles for what they are—and it wasn’t a fad. People had already been drinking it since 2009. I started thinking, maybe it’s something.”

Time and life passed along until something called Covid-19 made them stand still. In summer 2021, emerging from the pandemic pause that had her stranded in Zurich, Svitankova left Varvar and started to channel her accumulated energy into a formal campaign for the recognition of Ukrainian golden ale.

Svitankova started polling brewers back in Ukraine to learn who was making Ukrainian golden ale, what ingredients they were using and who was drinking it. She requested samples from any willing to share. Through aggregating information from Untappd, she counted 35 to 40 beers that might be classified as Ukrainian Golden Ale with 19 more breweries that had previously made it or had one in the works. The recipes showed commonality in basic ingredients and alcohol content, and most of the 11 samples she solicited tasted relatively similar.

She facilitated collaborations with brewers outside Ukraine’s borders on the behalf of former employer and friend Varvar (free of charge, aside from the occasional shipment of beer), eventually seven UK breweries and three in the US, including Chicago’s Midwest Coast Brewing Co. She found that in 2021, the final year before Russia’s full-scale invasion, Ukrainians drank approximately 1.25 million liters of their national golden ale. That’s about 12,800 barrels, equivalent to the entire annual output of some smaller breweries.

Svitankova redoubled her efforts after the invasion, connecting with more US and European brewers to get Ukrainian golden ale in front of consumers. Although the recognition campaign is not meant to be a war-related effort, she is “acutely aware” she can’t avoid the perception. “I started with intention to bring my country on the brewing scene map, and of course now I want that even more, whatever that highlighting brings,” Svitankova says. 

In summer 2023, the European Beer Consumers’ Union included it in its style guidelines. By the end of that year, at least 60% of Untappd’s 350 global moderators voted to add the style to its app. The Brewer’s Association and the Beer Judge Certification Program have yet to be swayed.

“We’re not driving beer styles, we’re trying to reflect what’s in the market,” says Chuck Skypeck, a Brewer’s Association representative and member of the committee that reviews, selects and formalizes style guidelines with suggestions from judges and brewers. “Lana is a dynamo in terms of promotion of that style, but we’re just not seeing it in the US.”

Svitankova remains undeterred. She usually brings cans wherever she travels, hoping to appeal to brewers (one such checked can eventually bore the first known Japan-brewed Ukrainian golden ale). This month, she plans to attend the BA’s annual Craft Brewers Conference in Las Vegas and to get samples into the hands of thousands of BA members, brewers and judges.

“This is the best and the worst time to be doing this,” she says. “People think it’s political, but it’s not about politics. I want people to recognize the style on its own merit.”

“Our craft beer culture is young. Having something of our own cements our position on the world scene,” Svitankova continues. “We’re saying: ‘Look! We can do this. We can be part of the global culture.’ It’s a small piece of our Ukrainian identity.”

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