When Lana Svitankova and fellow organizers of the Drinkers for Ukraine initiative chose a recipe for their open-collaboration beer, they could have gone with an IPA. After all, IPAs are widely popular, and independent brewers worldwide are used to brewing them in various forms. It would have been easy to hop on that bandwagon.
Instead, they chose a beer with beets.
Specifically, the recipe for their solidarity brew—Resist, a “Ukrainian anti-imperial stout”—calls for an ample portion of sweet, red beetroot, meant to evoke borscht.
“We thought, what can we add to make it more Ukrainian?” says Svitankova, who is currently based in Switzerland but works for the Varvar brewery in Kiev. “Beets were obvious for me. I suggested this just for fun. … But it’s in season, it’s cheap. So, I thought that it can be an easier way to make the beer more Ukrainian.”
Beets are the crucial ingredient in borscht. If that sounds unappealing to many North American drinkers, it might be that they haven’t enjoyed the real thing, which is popular throughout Eastern Europe, including Ukraine. A proper bowl of borscht is savory and sweet but also can be tart. It’s typically made with meat stock; sometimes beet juice is first soured via fermentation. Recipes vary widely and can include pork, tomato, and other vegetables; black pepper often features prominently. Served warm, it’s a familiar comfort at the dinner table. Served cold, it can be refreshing and restorative, helping to extend a night of drinking or—so they say—cure a hangover the next morning.
About the Resist beer: The idea is for any brewers who want to support Ukraine to brew it, sell it, and contribute proceeds to the Red Cross operations in Ukraine—or to any other chosen cause that helps people in Ukraine. Homebrewers also can participate. Of course, Drinkers for Ukraine isn’t the only such initiative; a quick, cursory online news search finds many dozens of breweries in North America, Europe, and elsewhere making special beers to raise funds for people in Ukraine (and making local headlines while doing it).
For example: The Garage Brewery in Chesapeake, Virginia, recently brewed their take on a Ukrainian golden ale—a style that Svitankova describes as a national staple among the country’s craft brewers—featuring 100 pounds of beets. The recipe came from the Pravda brewery in Lviv; Pravda’s former head brewer, Cory McGuinness, flew down to participate in the brewing session. The Garage planned served the beer at its fundraising Glory to Ukraine Festival in mid-April.
The Resist recipe is flexible and open-source; brewers can make it as strong as they like and otherwise modify it however they see fit—including, if they absolutely must, by leaving out the beets.
However, the Drinkers for Ukraine initiative (at drinkersforukraine.com) offers some useful advice on how to process and brew with the beets.
Their suggestion is to use about 50 grams of beets per liter of beer—roughly two pounds for a five-gallon batch, or one kilogram for 20 liters. Svitankova recommends baking the beets, to convert the sugars, increase the sweetness, and reduce the vegetable’s earthier qualities. Use your nose: When it smells good, she says, it’s ready. You can peel before baking, but—pro tip from a cook—they’re much easier to peel afterward. Then they can be chopped, pureed, or otherwise processed for adding to the beer. When to add it is up to you—could be mash, boil, whirlpool, or in secondary.
Warning: Beets are messy. If you add them to your mash, they can gum things up. Martin Dawson, brewer at Varvar, recommends adding rice or oat hulls to help filtration. You can also spread the processed beets on top of the mash bed. In the kettle or fermentor, using a mesh bag is a good idea.
Notably, beets have plenty of sugar—so, besides adding a vibrant color, they will add something to your extract. (According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, you can estimate about 7 grams of sugar per 100 grams of beets—or roughly 1.1 ounces of sucrose per pound of beetroot. Of course, you can always just take your gravity readings and wing it.)
“During post-fermentation, the extraction will be lower,” Dawson writes. “But if you are worried about the sugars, allow the beer to ferment out fully before packaging.”
And how about that color? In pale beers—for example, various breweries in Ukraine have brewed borscht-inspired goses—the color can be quite vivid, from pink to magenta. In black beers—such as an anti-imperial stout—it can even lend a pinkish hue to the foam, Svitankova says.
So, after an evening of drinking beet beer, might some borscht cure the hangover? Does that even work?
“Well, to be honest, I have no idea,” Svitankova says. “They say it cures everything—it’s just a universal panacea. Like, you can just be unhappy and eat a [bowl] of borscht, and everything will be all right.”