Maxim Larin, brewer

In 1466, Russian explorer Afanasy Nikitin—later dubbed “the Russian Columbus”—voyaged down the Volga River and halfway around the world, becoming the first Russian to visit India. The tale of his exotic travels was recounted in a remarkable memoir of 15th century life and adventure, A Voyage Beyond Three Seas (Khozhdenie za tri morya).

Afanasy Nikitin was a resident of Tver, the ancient Russian town that long rivaled with Moscow to become the capital. Fittingly, today one of Russia’s best home-grown brands is named for this pathbreaking explorer. Afanasy brewery in Nikitin’s hometown of Tver produces some of the most popular beers produced in Russia today.

Thirty-year-old Maxim Larin is general director of Afanasy brewery (his wife Olga also works there). Under his tenure the company has pursued a unique pattern of growth and introduced a variety of successful brands, most notably a world-class porter, rich with oak and herbal undertones.

Larin graduated from the Moscow Technological Institute of the Food Industry in 1993 and immediately went to work at Afanasy as an engineer in the marketing department. During the early to mid-1990s, Afanasy made its debut in Moscow and a dealer network was established across Russia. In 1995 Larin was promoted to financial director and, in 1998, to the post of general director of Afanasy-Pivo.

The first brewery in Tver was established in 1887 by Austrian entrepreneur Emil Slatinsky, and the now famous cone-shaped  0.3 liter Afanasy bottle dates back to those times. Opened in 1976 as “Brewery of Kalinin” (as Tver was called from 1931-1990), in 1992 the brewery was reorganized as a joint stock company, “Afanasy-Pivo,” and completely renovated with German and Czech machinery starting in 1996. It now employs 850 people and, in 1999, had annual revenues of some $5 million.

“Our main distinction,” Larin pointed out, “is that we are independent from major foreign beer concerns which are now busy actively buying out breweries throughout Russia.”

A Finnish-Swedish consortium is behind market leader Baltika beer; Finland’s Sinebrychoff controls St. Petersburg’s Vena brewery, churning out the low-market Koff beer; Indian backed Sun Brewing owns a controlling interest in several regional breweries, offering Viking beer as a national brand.

But Afanasy, whose brands garner about 2% of market share, has sought to grow through its own means, emphasizing the values of local ownership and smaller scale, quality production. “Of course we are growing, but we can’t compete with such giants as Baltika, which has foreign capital behind it,” notes Afanasy public relations manager Konstantin Sokolov.

Afanasy has introduced several brands since its inception, including light, dark, golden, dobroye (good) light and semi-dark and the new porter, which claimed the title of “Best Beer Brewed in Russia” at Moscow’s 2000 Beer Festival. All the while, however, Larin’s brewery strives to be “consumer friendly” with its prices, which can be 30-50% lower than competing brands.

“There is a deep-rooted myth that Russians drink only vodka,” Larin notes. “And yet in Russian stores one can now find a wide selection of not only vodkas, but also wines and beers. Which means there is demand for it. Beer has been brewed in Tver since the times of the Tverskoye knyazhestvo (Tver princedom) in the 13th-16th centuries ... Granted, we drink mostly vodka in Russia, but beer and vodka don’t contradict one other—each is merely meant for a different situation.”

Larin fights for market share by unconventional means. Afanasy does not go in for long TV commercials like its competitors. Bill boards, too, are few and far between. Yet Afanasy is one of the best known beers in Russia.

“We cannot afford to spend as much money on aggressive advertising as international beer concerns operating in Russia,” Larin says. “Nevertheless, in 2000 many of them cut their production volume, while we increased ours by 3%. This confirms that we are pursuing rational marketing policies.”

Afanasy is also doing its part to give back to the community: in 1999-2000 the brewery gave away $150,000 to various local charities, including for restoration of  Tver churches and for an orphanage in the town of Saritsa, Tver region.

Perhaps Afanasy’s most brilliant marketing idea was the “termo-znak” (“thermo-sign”). Explorer Afanasy Nikitin’s boat on the beer bottle’s label turns blue only if you cool the beer to the right temperature for consumption. For several years Afanasy was the only Russian beer with such a temperature-sensitive logo, which allowed them to proffer a clever marketing slogan: Afanasy—znakovoye pivo. The translation—“Sign of the Times”—surely also applies to businessman and beermaker Maxim Larin.

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