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'Geopolitical Situation' Blamed As Price Of Kyrgyzstan's Favorite Fermented Drink Skyrockets

It must be Shoro season...
It must be Shoro season...

Spring has arrived in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, the weather is warm, and the Muslim holy month of Ramadan is over.

A perfect time, then, to enjoy a freshly poured cup of one of the fermented drinks made by national drink-maker Shoro, which are sold on the city's streets by iconic "Shoro aunties."

There's just one problem -- Shoro's product is a touch pricey these days, essentially doubling in cost since 2021 and rising a full 33 percent just since last year.

The new prices as "Shoro season" begins have tested the loyalty of even the company's most dedicated customers, sparking a minor mutiny on social media.

That, in turn, has drawn in Kyrgyzstan's Anti-Monopoly Service, which demanded an explanation from Shoro. The company blamed the "geopolitical situation" -- shorthand for fallout from the war in Ukraine -- for the company's mounting costs.

'We're Waiting, But Not At Those Prices'

Shoro was founded in 1992, just a year after Kyrgyzstan gained independence from the crumbling Soviet Union.

Over that period, the company has been one of the country's few long-term commercial successes, elevating the pre-Soviet nomadic culture of the Kyrgyz people through its distinctive brand.

Shoro currently sells at least six different types of fermented drinks.

The most popular is Maksym Shoro, which the company describes as "a thirst-quenching, health-improving, tonic drink made from selected varieties of barley, wheat, and corn."

The brownish drink has "medicinal properties, exquisite taste and aroma, and also quenches thirst and hunger," the firm claims.

Another Shoro top seller is Chalap Shoro, "an invigorating, fermented-milk health drink made from natural cow's milk and pure cultures of lactic-acid bacteria."

While sold in bottles year-round, "Shoro season" only begins when the mostly red-cap-wearing women take up their perches at stalls across the city, minding large vats of sour, salty, and nutritious liquid.

And there they stay until the onset of colder weather in the fall.

But this year, their arrival hasn't quite been the same.

"Are you waiting?" asked a post on Shoro's Instagram page, featuring a photo of a Shoro employee beaming hospitably under one of the company's trademark umbrellas.

"We're waiting, but not at these prices!" responded one of the hundreds of Instagram users that left comments under the post.

"Let's boycott Shoro and drink water instead," suggested another. "Let them know their place."

Again and again, commenters referred to what several called the "frightening" cost of 24 soms (around 27 cents) for a 0.2-liter cup of Maksym Shoro.

The dissent then reached the Anti-Monopoly Service, which published Shoro's response to its inquiry in a communique distributed to the media on April 9.

"To make our produce, we use only the highest-quality raw materials and, over the past few years we have experienced a significant increase in prices for raw materials purchased on the local market, on average from 30 to 55 percent," Shoro wrote, including a table that showed how the costs of ingredients such as sugar (30.5 percent), flour (17.9 percent), wheat grain (55 percent), barley (49.2 percent), and milk (42.9 percent) had risen since 2021.

The cost of imported ingredients had risen significantly "due to the geopolitical situation in the world and the disruption of traditional supply chains," Shoro said, acknowledging that the company had also raised wages and modernized its production process.

"We decided to prioritize quality," it said.

Although Shoro did not mention Ukraine specifically, the war and related sanctions slapped on Moscow by Kyiv's allies have been felt particularly keenly in countries close to Russia.

Food inflation during the first year of the conflict was around 16 percent in Kyrgyzstan, which relies on imports from neighbors like Kazakhstan and Russia to meet much of its food needs. Over the course of 2023, that indicator slowed to less than 9 percent, according to official statistics.

A Recognizable Brand

Shoro will be hoping that an expected hot and dry start to summer keeps its frontline workers busy in spite of the public pushback against their pricing policy.

Those employees are certainly a national institution.

A mural made with plastic bottle tops in Bishkek celebrates one of Shoro's longest-serving employees.
A mural made with plastic bottle tops in Bishkek celebrates one of Shoro's longest-serving employees.

Last month, the company honored its longest-serving Shoro aunty -- Ainura Isaeva, who has worked for the company for 28 years -- by financing a mural made out of plastic bottle caps on the side of a building in Bishkek. The mural was part of a series honoring Kyrgyz and their contributions to independence.

In 2012, meanwhile, a series of Shoro sellers and their stories were celebrated in Shoro Girls, an online comic illustrated and written by French artist Nicolas Journoud.

"It is this very visual thing that you notice straight away in Bishkek -- the women, the umbrella, and the drinks. I took time to sketch them and show them those sketches so that they were able to understand my interest. From there I was able to talk to them, get to know them, and create portraits," he told RFE/RL.

Images from Bishkek Shoro Girls, a comics documentary illustrated by French animator Nicolas Journoud about Kyrgyz women who sell Shoro drinks in the streets of Bishkek.
Images from Bishkek Shoro Girls, a comics documentary illustrated by French animator Nicolas Journoud about Kyrgyz women who sell Shoro drinks in the streets of Bishkek.

Journoud's evocative panels did not necessarily romanticize life as a Shoro employee or Kyrgyzstan's difficult economy, so he was not surprised when the company politely refused his pitch to fund a hard-copy version of the project.

"But they did give me a free bottle of Maksym Shoro," he recalled.

At present, Shoro's brand recognition is mostly limited to Kyrgyzstan, although the company does export to neighboring markets like Kazakhstan and Russia.

And in much smaller amounts to the United States.

Last year, veteran Chicago-based journalist Monica Eng reviewed Maksym Shoro in a column for the Axios website, acclaiming the beverage as a winner for "adventurous drinkers" after sampling it at a Kyrgyzstan-themed store in the American city's famous Wrigley Building.

The drink "delivers fizzy, salty, and refreshingly sour top notes with a roasted -- almost burnt 'popcorny' -- finish," she wrote.

And if Kyrgyz are chafing at the ever-rising prices for their favorite beverage, they should know that for Chicagoans it is a veritable luxury -- currently costing $20 for a 1-liter bottle.

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    Chris Rickleton

    Chris Rickleton is a journalist living in Almaty. Before joining RFE/RL he was Central Asia bureau chief for Agence France-Presse, where his reports were regularly republished by major outlets such as MSN, Euronews, Yahoo News, and The Guardian. He is a graduate of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. 

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