It was a little after midnight in mid-October when Lee Cleghorn parked his rental car on the Poland side of the border with Ukraine. The Outer Range Brewing
co-founder and CEO had been redirected to an area where he could cross the border on foot, as he would not be let through with a rental car. There was an 11 p.m. curfew in Ukraine, so the area was pretty desolate. Cleghorn managed to find a man to drive him to the major Western Ukraine city of Lviv, where he found a hotel and stayed the night.
When he awoke, the city was buzzing. Cafes filled and people were going about their lives, all while air sirens periodically went off in the background. Lviv had been bombed just a week prior as part of Russia’s retaliation for the bombing of the Crimean Bridge.
Last month, Cleghorn had met Ukrainian brewer Ilya online, exchanging Instagram messages back and forth for a few weeks. When Cleghorn asked how he could help, Ilya told him that it would be great if he could come to Ukraine. So Cleghorn did. He also got Yakima Chief Hops, a major Washington State hop supplier, to expedite some hops to France, where Cleghorn was staying. He then loaded up a suitcase filled with Outer Range beer and booked a flight to Poland.
While most foreigners have fled west from Ukraine, Cleghorn was going straight into the war-torn country. His background as a U.S. Army Green Beret in active combat, including several leadership roles, gave him experience in these types of situations. “I spent a couple years in places like [Ukraine] before,” he says, adding that he had served three years in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Outer Range Brewing's Lee Cleghorn (left) and PZDK Brewery's Ilya at Zen Brewery in Ukraine.
From Lviv, Cleghorn rented another car and traveled to the city of Rivne, about a three-hour drive northeast. Along the way, there were many military checkpoints. “They were all really nice,” recalls Cleghorn. “They were excited to see an American.” In Rivne, what Cleghorn saw surprised him. There was a burgeoning craft beer scene taking place, alongside a historic one. Further, there was a large homebrewing scene.
Cleghorn met up with Ilya, the brewer at PZDK Brewery, who along with his team had evacuated the entire brew system from the war-ravaged Kharkiv in northeastern Ukraine, bringing it west to Rivne, where the brew system was sold in order to provide food for the team's families. The brewery now leases the system back so it can continue brewing beer. Other Ukrainian friends were not so lucky; Cleghorn was told of a Ukrainian brewer in the east who refused to evacuate. The Russians took over his brewery and are now forcing the brewer to make beer for them.
In Rivne, Cleghorn also met up with Miroslav Turin of Zen Brewery, which uses the same facility that brews PZDK beer. They toured the city and, along with Ilya, brewed a double IPA, dry-hopped with the Mosaic hops from Yakima Chief.
Lee Cleghorn walking the streets of Lviv with Zen Brewery's Miroslav Turin.
While in Rivne, Cleghorn did a lot of listening, hearing many personal stories about how the war has impacted the local people. "One main takeaway was the challenges that they're having as small businesses," says Cleghorn. "It's been a challenging few years for everybody, but their specific challenges are through the stratosphere." On top of ingredient and shipping prices that are already rising worldwide, the Ukrainian brewers are having to deal with the disappearance of disposable income that drives the craft brewing industry in the country. As Cleghorn puts it, "The [Ukrainian craft beer] market has shrunk considerably."
During his visit, Cleghorn had an idea for a way he could really help. While Outer Range is not a distributor, it is working on setting up channels to get several Ukrainian craft beer brands distributed in Colorado. "We're self-distributed in Colorado, and we don't import beer, so these are new challenges for us," he explains. "We're looking to coordinate this, and we'll sell some [Ukrainian beer] at our taproom, but it'll primarily be sold at liquor stores and bottle shops in Colorado."
Cleghorn also plans to go back to Ukraine. "It's gorgeous there, with great food, and the people are really nice," he notes.
Before he left, a local blog asked him if he was feeling scared or worried while visiting their country. His response was that nearly fifty million Ukrainians are waking up every day and going about their lives like normal, and it's very inspiring. Spending a few days in Western Ukraine felt pretty safe when taking that into account.