Europe's best-kept beer secret?
Posted in Beer on 2010-09-18 21:09
Vilnius business district at night
A flood of industrial lager has swept away the native beer traditions of just about every country in Europe except, famously, for the Czech Republic, Germany, Belgium, and the UK. Oh, and, it turns out, Lithuania. If you haven't heard about Lithuanian beer traditions, don't worry, because nobody else has, either.
Other countries in Northern Europe also kept a native homebrewing tradition, as I wrote recently, but in these countries it is either hard or impossible to buy traditional beers. In Lithuania, however, the native beer is brewed commercially and available in a number of bars and shops. For anyone interested in actually trying it, that makes an enormous difference, because you can just buy a bottle without having to find and befriend a brewer first.
To make myself perfectly clear I should add that these are not the kind of craft brewers you find all over the world these days, making porters, doppelbocks, and IPAs. These people are brewing a style (or perhaps styles) I would call Lithuanian farmhouse ale.
From Per Kølster's excellent book I gathered that brewing your own beer has never stopped being common in the Lithuanian countryside. Apparently, most brewers have their own yeast, which they keep in the well. It seems to be common to share it with your neighbours when they are in need, so to what extent it's possible to distinguish yeast strains is not clear. They also grow their own hops, according to both the book and locals, but what varietal (or varietals) I don't know. Even the malts are Lithuanian-grown, so this truly is a local product.
As you can tell, I haven't been able to find a lot of precise information on these beers. The reason is that I didn't meet a single person who knew about them who spoke fluent English, so extracting information was difficult, to put it mildly. And searching the web has so far yielded nothing useful.
In Lithuanian, this style of beer is known as "kaimiškas alus", meaning "village beer". It can be "šviesus", meaning pale, or "tamsus", meaning dark. Sometimes it's even "juodas", meaning black. Some are "filtruotas", lightly filtered, while most are "nefiltruotas", much less filtered. As I guess you've gathered by now, we are not talking about 2-3 beers here. RateBeer lists dozens of traditional Lithuanian beers, but in a few days I found at least 10 new ones, so clearly the true number is quite high.
I thought kaimiškas was a single style, but the beers are surprisingly varied. Some of the pale ones are fairly bitter and dominated by a dusty strawy taste, like being dropped face first into a bale of hay that's baked in the sun all day. Lithuanian beers appear to use lots of hops, and I suspect this is the aroma of the local hops. These beers have no trace of yeast character, surprisingly, but other beers are dominated by it. One tasted like a mild gueuze, another like a Belgian tripel, and a third was most of all like a Finnish sahti with a good dose of hops.
One I really liked was Jovaru Alus, at 5.6%. It was hazy and amber-coloured, and tasted of fruity walnuts and alcohol with herbal hoppy notes. It was both sweet and bitter at the same time, and a lot more harmonic than it sounds. I found it almost scarily drinkable. A more straightforward pale kaimiškas was Salaus alus at 5%. It was hazy and yellow with a huge white head, and tasted strongly of earthy peppery dusty straw. That taste was so incredibly vivid and clear I can still remember it fairly exactly. There was some sweetness, but mostly this was a bitter beer, with a long aftertaste that stayed in the mouth after I'd left the bar.
There is quite a lot to explore here, and since I've found no evidence of named styles, mostly one simply has to try beers at random to see what they are like. I really liked most of the ones I tried, and they were certainly a lot more interesting that the variations on industrial pale lager that are all most countries have to offer.
In Vilnius kaimiškas is actually quite easy to find, since there are several bars specializing in these beers. But that is a subject for another posting.
Kaimisko alaus baras
Update: If you want more information I've published a guidebook to Lithuanian beer, which goes into a lot more detail.
Hasse - 2010-09-22 01:26:18
Mycket intressant läsning. Tack för det.
Lars Heuer - 2010-09-22 11:19:30
I have to admit that I didn't read this post, but I like the "Vilnius business district at night" image very much. Well done! :)
thebeertourist - 2010-10-08 17:13:30
Excellent as always! Makes me want to sneak in a Vilnius weekend!
Lars Marius - 2010-10-08 17:21:03
Thank you, mr. Tourist. :) I would recommend staying longer than just a weekend, if you can. There's more than enough to see and do, and it would take more than a week to get through all the different beers.
Ramtyns - 2011-08-30 17:59:29
Thanks for the post and greetings from Lithuania! By the way I was directed to your blog by German enthusiasts during a lambic festival in Belgian countryiside...
Interesting to read a foreigners perspective. I can confirm that craft beer scene in Lithuania is alive and kicking even though the future didn't seem bright just a few years ago, when the small brewers were closing one after another. It took a countryboy Valentas who started his two Šnekutis pubs in the capital serving exclusively "countryside" beers, and the trend soon followed with a bang. Those new pubs alone allowed a number of small brewers to survive.
I can highly recommend visiting North Lithuania which is traditionally a Beer Country - but prepare for adventures and take a translator with you. You can also write me (firstname.lastname@example.org) and I would gladly share some information on Lithuanian beer scene.
Ramtyns - 2011-08-30 18:26:55
Oh and speaking about the ingredients... from what I gather, some of the yeast being used is family yeast (say, Čias beers), some harvested wild (say, in Senolių, Morkūno), baking yeast is also sometimes used. It's quite often that smaller brewers would borrow fresh lager yeast from a bigger brewery.
As for hops, in traditional homebrewing both wild and somewhat "domesticated" hops (the ones that have been climbing the fence or house wall for generations) were used. Polish Marynka, which grows very well, is also being grown lately. The word goes that one microbrewery has its own hop farm and brews with its own hops, even if it's true, it's a sole case.
Some commercial microbrewers use noble German and Czech hops. E.g. your Salaus beer was most probably brewed with Perle or Hallertauer (saw the package at Kupikio brewery). Intriguingly, genuine yet totally obscure Lithuanian hop varieties such as Fredos Taurieji, Fredos Kartieji, Kauno Graieji - which were selectioned during both interwar and Soviet times by enthusiast academics, were dropped since Lithuania entered EU.
Lars Marius - 2011-08-31 01:42:32
Hi Ramtyns, and thank you very much for all this information. You've just raised the quality of this blog post substantially. :-)
I'd love to make another visit to Lithuania, and a trip to the north, but whether work, wife, and children will allow it remains to be seen.
Also, I really hope the Lithuanian hops come back. I imagine there could be a market for it, given how craft brewers the world over keep searching for new hops, and how hop varieties suddenly come into fashion (Simcoe, Nelson Sauvin, Citra, ...).
Ramtyns - 2011-08-31 07:01:06
Lars, it's my pleasure to share this with you and your blog readers. We have a few beer enthusiast clubs here in Lithuania, when you arrive next time just give me a shout and I can ask if somebody would like to accompany you to the pub and tell more details.
As for Lithuanian hop comeback, I believe exactly the same what you said and I know there are some efforts towards this already.
Lars Marius - 2011-08-31 07:14:18
@Ramtyns: Wow. It's clear I need to make another trip. I'll let you know if I manage. :-)
Ramtyns - 2012-05-01 05:56:54
Hi Lars, you might be interested in some news from the lab on the yeast used in Lithuanian farmhouse ales: http://tikrasalus.lt/2012/05/01/lithuanian-countryside-yeast-tales/