Vilnius: a beer guide for the impatient
Posted in Beer on 2015-03-04 15:26
Vilnius in February
My guidebook to Lithuanian beer has all the detailed information, but for those who are going to Vilnius and don't want to read 100 pages of detailed text, there isn't anything available now. So I thought it might be useful to gather the most important information in one place. To keep this piece manageable I have had to leave out lots of interesting stuff even though some if it is big enough to deserve full blog posts of their own. There really is that much going on in Vilnius.
Understanding the selection
The selection of beer on offer in Lithuania is intensely confusing to a foreigner, because of all the unfamiliar terms, and because the menus often make it very difficult to understand which beer you're being offered. Usually, the menu will give the name of the beer, but not the brewery. It may tell you the village the beer comes from, and the family name of the brewer, but not which brewery it is. In one case, the only indication that the beer was fra Kauno Alus was the one-centimeter tall version of the Kaunas city arms on the tap sign.
However, there is one simple and easy rule you can use. Anything called "IPA", "elis", "stoutas", "porteris", etc you can skip. Who eats pizza in Tokyo? Or sushi in Rome? The locals, obviously, but you as a visitor can get this stuff any time. When you visit a place that has things that exist nowhere else, it's a waste of time to drink and eat things you can get anywhere.
Poster at Alaus Namai
Yet, again and again, I see beer enthusiasts going to Vilnius and ordering "IPA", "šokoladas stoutas" and so on, probably because they know and recognize these terms, so they know what they're getting. Don't do that! Instead, do the opposite. Anything that looks strange, inexplicable, or weird, go for that instead. As a very rough rule: the worse the label design, the more interesting the beer.
And be prepared for the unexpected. The beers you get generally have odd, unusual flavours. Take your time with them, be open minded, and respect that this is something unique and different. Be aware that the beers will generally be low on bitterness, and often high in diacetyl.
Beers you must try
Jovaru Alus (sometimes called Jovaru Šnekutis) should be your first priority. This is a true Lithuanian farmhouse ale, brewed from Lithuanian malts, and a rather unusual recipe. While mashing, the brewer boils a hop tea on the side, then after mashing the hop tea is mixed in, the wort is cooled, and the yeast is pitched at 35 degrees C. You'll note the total absence of any boiling of the wort, so this is a raw ale. All modern beer is boiled, so according to modern brewing theory it shouldn't even be possible to make a beer like this.
The yeast is also remarkable. The brewer says her grandfather "found it in the forest". How he did that is not clear, but DNA sequencing indicates that is unique. The beer itself also indicates that the yeast is unique, because it smells and tastes like no other beer. There's the dusty straw and earth aroma of Lithuanian malts, combined with oily, nutty flavours, together with phenolic aromas and a great deal else. It feels quite full in the mouth, but there's actually hardly any sugar in it, and there's a good deal of bitterness. I recommend ordering a full pint, and to have more than one. Note that there is also a version with honey ("Su Naturaliu Medumi"), which is sweeter, and also worth a try.
Another classic is the beer from Ramūnas Čižas. He, too, uses family yeast. His beer is also unique in being a keptinis, a Lithuanian beer style where the malt is baked into loaf shapes as part of the mashing process. The baking starts enzyme processes in the malts, and the baking also changes the flavour of the malts.
Anything from the Piniavos brewery is highly recommended. This is a family farmhouse brewery based near Panevezys. They have two excellent beers that are easy to find: one with raspberry stems (Laukiniu Aviečiu), and one with red clover (Raudonuju Dobilu). Their best is Seklyčios, but it's is hard to find in Vilnius.
The Su Puta brewery is likewise highly recommended. They have their own family yeast, and produce a line of excellent beers.
A real star of Lithuanian brewing is Kupiškio (sometimes called Kupiškenu on the label). They brew a wide range of very different beers that are not all strictly farmhouse, but they are all interesting, and different. These beers can be a little variable, but when they are good they are excellent. Kupiškio brews a beer specially for the Iki supermarket chain that's worth going out of your way for. It comes in an 0.75l bottle wrapped in brown paper, so it's easy to recognize. Very complex, and very unusual.
A more modern brewery, which still has roots in the farmhouse culture, is Davra, whose Varniuku is a lovely example of Lithuanian tamsusis. There is little hops, but excellent malt complexity. The draft tower is usually easy to recognize, featuring a wooden statue of a crow wearing a top hat. Their Daujotu is also worth a try.
Another star brewery is Dundulis, which is kind of modern craft. Their selection is huge and constantly changing, and includes Lithuanianized versions of international styles, as well as historical recreations of Lithuanian specialities. They are excellent brewers and generally produce beers of very high quality.
Finally, Vilniaus Alaus is worth mentioning. They brew a number of interesting and different beers, that don't seem to be traditional, but which are still so Lithuanian and unique that they are worth trying. Their strong 13 Statinu (pale and dark) are very interesting, as well as their spiced beers, and several others.
There is much, much more of interest, including several styles of beer I haven't even mentioned, but I'm trying to keep this blog post short. For the full story, see the book.
Old beer ads, Šnekutis Užupio
The first standard-bearer for Lithuanian farmhouse beers was Šnekutis. They first opened one pub south in the old town, then another in the rather bohemian and alternative part of town called Užupis, and finally third, bigger one in the old town. These have similar selections (and always have Jovaru Alus draft). They will also have Piniavos, Kupiskio, Davra and a few others. All three bars serve simple home style cooking at very nice prices.
The Šnekutis in Užupio is particularly interesting, since the inside is crammed with farming implements, old beer ads, and even a couple of aquariums. Note that it may have to move this spring. If it does I'll update this blog post.
Bambalynė is a classy brick cellar bar (and bottle shop) in the old town. They have a big selection in bottles (and no draft beer), which you can select yourself from the fridges. This place is a must visit, and good for buying beer to take home. Consider trying the cured meats. Nearby, in the same street, is a Lithuanian restaurant called Aline Lečiai, which has good and interesting beers, as well as Lithuanian cuisine. Also on the same street is Leičiu Bravoras, a very nice brewpub under the same owners, which also serves good food.
Alaus Namai is an interesting pub outside the city center by the river. It doesn't look very inviting from the outside, but has a unique style inside. It can be relied upon to have Ramūnas Čižas's beer (there's only one), as well as a good selection of interesting breweries. It also serves food at good prices. The menu is in English, but since it doesn't mention brewery names it can be very hard to navigate.
Alynas is also worth a mention. A modern bar just off the main street, serving 20 Lithuanian beers draft. They also tap the beer in bottles for takeaway, and they have a big and interesting selection of Lithuanian specialities like cured meats, cheese, smoked eel and fish, etc.
At 13 Statinu
13 Statinu is an interesting pub with a good selection of Vilniaus Alaus beers, just off the main tourist street Pilies. It's hidden in a backyard, and the only sign of it on the street itself is a tacky black-and-white sign of a beer drinker wearing lederhosen.
Špunka is a tiny, lovely pub in Užupis focusing on Dundulis, and serving their beers draft and bottled in top condition. Their cheese platter comes from a nearby farmer's market, and is very much worth a try.
If you want a printable map to take along, you can use this one. I maintain it for my own, private purposes, so some of the text can be a little odd, and some of the text is out of date. But it gives a nice overview in a couple of pages.
So that's the short version. The book has the long version.
Lithuania may be a small country today, but once the joint Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth included much of present-day Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Belorussia, and Ukraine
Read | 2011-05-14 10:40
Now that I've visited Lithuania three times, and finally gotten to actually meet some of the brewers, I feel I am at last beginning to understand a least a little of Lithuanian beer
Read | 2013-09-02 20:00
Steve @ What Way Today - 2016-02-26 03:49:26
A great guide to beer in Vilnius, which I found this before our trip. Without knowing much about the Lithuanian drinking culture before I arrived, it was a great surprise to be welcomed by such an array of beer. Loved Snekutis, we visited two of them and it was nice to sit outside at their Uzupis one. http://whatwaytoday.com/2016/02/22/a-guide-around-vilnius-and-the-repulic-of-uzupis-baltic-trip-part-4/