Marzen on the Dnieper
There are absorbing stories latent in the charming beer labels of old East Europe. They tell of breweries, often distant from centres of influence, plying routes of Empire for trade, and their beers. It might be the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it might be the Russian one.
The labels might be in Roman, or graceful Cyrillic, but a story is there to tell. The brewery of Nikopol is case in point.
Nikopol? I had the same question.
The Popular Encyclopedia (1879) placed Nikopol in southern Russia, on the Dnieper River, centre of a rich agricultural area. There were 8,858 souls. Today, Nikopol is in Ukraine. The nationality of the soul changes, but it is still Slavic.
The Popular Encyclopedia mentioned transport and trade ties with Odessa, on the Black Sea. This proved important for the brewery albeit Nikopol is well-upriver, a couple of hundred miles or so. It sits on a piece of land jutting into the river. In 1888 Karl Antonovich Steckel (sometimes rendered Stekel) established a sizeable, steam-powered brewery in the city.
You may view it here ca. 1890, posted in Rupivo, a Russian breweriana site. A big hulking affair, it broods over the town, belying the joy-giving properties of its product. Below is a modern view of the Dnieper from the Nikopol shore (source: Wikipedia):
Russia and Ukraine went through a lot since the Belle Epoque: Revolution, Leninism, Stalin and the New Economic Policy, WW II and the fight to get the Germans out, etc. It seemed unlikely much could be documented for the brewery’s early years.
Not so. A journalist called Igor Antsishkin wrote an excellent account a few years ago in Nikopol Arts, which reports on culture and events. As translated by Google, the title is Enterprises That we Lost: Nikopol Brewery has Been Brewing Beer for Over a Hundred Years.
I will summarize aspects but the original should be read for the full flavour. More than the gist is rendered by the translation, and a bonus: the literal results of machine translation can render a poetic or charming effect.
This line though rings well in standard English while revealing Slavic proclivities:
Beer without vodka is throwing money into the wind.
Steckel is described as Austrian but as having been connected as well to Turnau, now Turnov in northern Czech Republic. Bavaria is mentioned too although I think Turnov was never in Bavaria. It is clear he was not from Nikopol and never resided there. He had a house he would occupy for short periods to survey his investment.
He hired a general manager, Ivan Pitro, who had graduated from a brewing academy in Turnau, and the two are remembered as operating the brewery before the Revolution.
Antsishkin describes many details. These include where the hops and barley came from (locally, with some hops imported eg. from Bohemia), staffing, production figures and values, and motive power for different functions.
The brewery took water from the Dnieper – still clean then – and malted its own grain. It used bottles of fairly recent design produced by an Empire factory, in Donetsk, exotic coloured triangular-shaped bottles. You may view them in Rupivo, for Nikopol, too.
Ahead of WW I the brewery was nearing 100,000 hL per annum, reaching first division in the brewers’ league, by the metric we saw earlier. A prohibition law, then the war, slowed its course, but the brewery carried on under Lenin and Stalin. The Germans used it to make beer for the Wehrmacht after occupying the city.
At war’s end it returns to domestic production, and is expanded for kvass and soft drinks. It ends its beer production days only in 2002 – an amazing run, taking all with all.
Antsishkin describes the beer types made in Steckel’s day, names familiar to me from writing on East European brewing. He states (Google translation):
The brewing process took an average of five days. The brewery brewed the then famous sorts of beer – “Martovskoe”, “Plzenskoe”, “Venskoe” and “Porter”.
So, March beer, pilsner, Vienna, and porter. The first and third would seem the same, but presumably there was some difference. An American Homebrewers’ Association presentation on old Russian beers has good notes for pre-Revolution styles and after. The author, Ali Kocho Williams, writes of March beer:
- Martovskoe (synonymous with Marzen, although a darker beer) a slightly sweet flavor and strong malt aroma
Although post-1918 is referenced, I would think Steckel’s beer of this name was similar. Perhaps his Vienna was lighter and paler, or less aged. The five days is puzzling – could it be the brewery was top-fermenting? I would doubt this, but can’t be sure. “Brewing process” might mean mashing and boiling with hops, although normally that should not take five days.
Antsishkin includes a good image of the brewery in 1910. In the 22 years since construction one can see improvements, e.g. the encircling wall. A less random character is evident, in general, than in 1888 when rude footbridges still crossed the Dnieper.
So this story has all the elements of my accounts for Belarus, Galicia, and Lithuania: onset of industrial brewing, focus on lager, ever-present competition (see Antsishkin again), and the traumatic effects of war. It even has religion, not Jewish in this case: Antsishkin states Steckel was Roman Catholic and chary to entrust management to an adherent of the Orthodox Church!
This tells us something about the world of c. 1900, not entirely displaced, sadly.
Coda: Parts of the building still stand. Gorod, a publication in Dnipro further upriver, reported in 2015 that a developer agreed with Nikopol town council to preserve the historic parts to incorporate them in an urban development plan. It would be interesting to know the follow-up, six years later.
*Also or mainly called Steckel Brewery.