Liquid Thinking


Can the drinks industry have a political, social, and humanitarian impact on the ongoing war?

23rd March 2022

Ever since war broke out in Ukraine, the global drinks industry has pledged support through limited edition drinks and fundraisers. Meanwhile, stores have pledged to boycott products from Russia, with bars promoting krainian produced drinks instead. But what will their impact be?

There’s a growing movement of drinks created to champion, raise awareness of, advocate and fundraise for a number of social causes. From Black Lives Matter, to LGBTQ+ rights, and domestic violence, drinks makers are increasingly taking a stance on some of the most contentious political and social issues. So, when the war recently broke out in Ukraine, it was no surprise that drinks makers rose to the occasion.

The world’s first protest beer?

Of the pro-Ukraine products to launch in the past few weeks, all promise to donate all, or a portion of, sales to charities on the ground. They include beleaguered brewer BrewDog, which swerved the continued controversy it’s currently embroiled in to launch a 5.2% New England IPA called United for Ukraine, sold with 100% of the profits going to unspecified charities and community projects. It’s not too off-message for the brand, which in 2014 taunted Putin with Hello My Name is Vladimir, a craft beer apparently ‘not for gays’ adorned with images of the Russian premier wearing make-up in protest at newly introduced anti-gay laws. In fact it claimed at the time the product was the world’s first protest beer. The company said this time it was responding both to consumer requests that they support Ukraine, as well as requests from charities and community projects for support.

‘If you’re complacent, you’re complicit’

Experimental Danish drinks maker Empirical, has also taken a strong stance, with a subtly named product called ‘Fuck Putin And His Stupid Fucking War’. As it states on its website: “Here we go again; another asshole trying to make up for his lack of man parts”. The product is a pre-mixed cocktail similar to a white negroni, while proceeds will go to the Jose Andres fund to help feed the people of Ukraine. The brand says: “We know we’re just a little company with very little sway, but we believe that if you’re complacent, you’re complicit; we all have to say something at this moment.”

Elsewhere, other new products in patriotic Ukrainian flag-inspired packaging include the NO WAR-with Ukraine Junmai Sake created by Daiichi Sake Brewery in Northern Japan, donating all profits. Derbyshire craft brewer Thornbridge has temporarily renamed its flagship beer Jaipur, to Help Ukraine, donating 10% of every pint sold to the British Red Cross Ukraine Appeal. The company has also encouraged drinkers to donate directly.

Championing Ukraine, cancelling Russia

Alongside pledges of financial support from some of the largest drinks companies, many are also withdrawing from operations in Russia. They include Diageo, Heineken, Pernod Ricard, Coca Cola, PepsiCo, Carlsberg and AB InBev, among others. A cluster of UK brewers… Arkells, Batemans, Fullers, Greene King, Hogsback, Hydes and Wadworth are taking it a step further, by looking into providing homes and employment for Ukranian refugees, with some considering using recently closed premises as potential accommodation.

Meanwhile, numerous bar chains, importers and others are championing Ukrainian produced goods. Spirits importer, Emporia, has teamed-up with selected UK bars to serve cocktails made with Ukrainian vodka Staritsky Levitsky Private Cellar, which is distilled near Lviv.  Its aim is to raise £20,000 for the British Red Cross Ukrainian Appeal. Ukrainian three grain vodka, Dima, is also raising funds through sales of its pre-bottled cocktails. And the Nightcap group, which owns The Adventure Bar Group, Barrio Familia and The Cocktail Club brands, has replaced all Russian vodka in its bars, with Ukrainian vodka, Nemiroff.

Collaborative brewing

All of the above efforts are undoubtedly well-intentioned; a united wave of support globally and domestically will be key in helping Ukraine to keep its identity if it falls, and help it rebuild if it prevails. Urgent humanitarian aid is also desperately needed for a displaced, traumatised population undergoing unimaginable suffering. Aid and funds are vital. But all raise some difficult ethical and practical questions too.

Namely, is it right to encourage consumers to buy a product supporting Ukraine, rather than donate directly? A number of influencers for example who have used the war to promote their own product lines (google Danielle Bernstein if you can stand to) pledging to donate some of their sales, have been caught in a wave of controversy. Shouldn’t brands be using their influence to encourage consumers to donate directly?

There’s also numerous ethical questions raised around brands withdrawing from Russia; they are too vast to dissect here. But with Ukraine under heavy and sustained attack, how long can supplies of Ukrainian drinks products last? When they run out, will a vital source of direct economic support be withdrawn too? And where brands are owned by global rather than local entities, is the money raised from sales even entering the Ukrainian economy at all? In short, is any of this really helping?

Direct support

One of the most innovative ways consumers themselves have found to support those on the ground and fleeing from Ukraine, has been to book out and pay for Airbnb rooms they know they will never use, putting money immediately and directly into the hands of those that need it.

In the drinks world, the closest comparison may be in the form of social brewing, a practice whereby a recipe is shared globally for brewers to replicate, as long as they pledge funds raised to go directly back to the cause at hand.

In this case, Lviv’s Pravda Brewery has asked the world’s brewers directly for help to produce its flagship beers, now that is it no longer able to. The open call to #BrewforUkraine has begun to be answered. More than 140 tuned in to its live stream brewing session.

UK brewer Neptune, US-based Russian River Brew Co, J Wakefield Brewing and HomeGrownBrewing Company, and Mash Gang have all began brewing, pledging funds to the Disaster Emergency Committee Ukraine appeal, as Pravda brewery itself begins production of Molotov cocktails instead.

As the war continues on, the needs of the Ukrainian people will undoubtedly begin to change. As people fight for survival, the preservation of Ukrainian culture – including drinking culture – may not be at the forefront of their minds.

But as Russia continues a campaign aimed at wiping out Ukrainian identity as much as its independence, retaining Ukrainian culture and helping it to thrive will still be vitally important. Especially for those building new lives, unable to return back home. The retention and dispersion of Pravda’s recipes and beers around the world, is as much an act of defiance as the defences it is now making to fight with are.

Expect demand for even more direct methods of support, alongside initiatives that promote Ukrainian drinking culture itself – from traditional serves and flavours, as well as uniquely Ukrainian recipes for the likes of beers and spirits – to rise, as the world demands more than just well-intentioned products bearing the Ukrainian flag.

Interested in finding out more about what this might mean for you and your business?

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