A whirlwind tour of Lithuanian brewing
Trakai island castle
I took a guided tour of Lithuanian beer and was so blown away that I can only describe it as a whirlwind tour. You'll see why. As readers of this blog know, I've been to Lithuania twice before, and discovered that Lithuanian beer culture is something completely unique. Learning more than that turned out to be very, very difficult, however.
But then, to my delight, I discovered BeerTourism.lt, run by Vidmantas Laurinavičius, which takes people on guided brewery tours of Lithuania. I joined a group of four Americans on a tour arranged for beer writer Don Russell. So nine in the morning, six people crammed into a minivan, and set out from Vilnius, with very little idea of what to expect.
As we started, Vidmantas told us that all the breweries we were going to see would be different, and he was right. As you'll see, they were all completely different, and all interesting for different reasons. He also told us that "the hospitality of Lithuanian brewers is great". He was not joking about that, either.
The plan was to visit eight breweries, scattered all over Aukštatija (the highlands in northern Lithuania, which is where most of the breweries are). So we covered hundreds of kilometers, racing at 130 km/h on narrow bumping roads through pretty little towns, gorgeous farmland, and lakeside forests. As the brewers plied us with ever more beer, and our joy of discovering all these great places grew, a kind of euphoria set in, and we seemed to be flying along.
A few breweries cancelled during the day, and we skipped one to get back early. As it turned out, that was an ambition that would be comprehensively thwarted. I'll come back to all five breweries in more detail in later posts. The five are one brewpub, one small brewery, a traditional farmhouse brewer, a still active Soviet-era brewery, and another small and very special brewer. In this post I'll just stick to the story of the tour.
Vidmantas had wisely left the Joalda brewery for last, since the brewer, Algimantas Rimkevičių, is notorious for his hospitality. It's kind of a cliché to say people look like failed boxers. Well, Algimantas did not. He certainly had the hulking bear-like build of a boxer, but he didn't look like he'd failed. He looked like he'd been entirely successful, and was now mostly retired.
Our host, Algimantas
We were all greeted with shouts of delight and bone-crushing hugs, except the one woman in the party, who was treated with elaborate courtly manners, and had her hand formally kissed. We were then served beer, and I was immediately shocked almost off my feet. This was the stuff of true greatness, a beer so silkily drinkable I couldn't believe it. The mouthfeel was like nothing I'd ever had before.
And it was good for us that it was drinkable, because our host would keep refilling and refilling our glasses. Occasionally he would decide that we were drinking too slowly, and empty his own glass in one sip, before insisting "glug-glug-glug" until we followed suit.
The party became very lively indeed, as we desperately tried to find ways to reduce our intake. Don whispered happily in my ear that he'd managed to swap his full glass for an empty one, but the problem was that to Algimantas an empty glass was a glass that needed filling, to preserve his honour as a host. So you could drink slow, or drink fast, but either way you were going to drink a lot.
We moved into a tasting pavilion next to the house, where we were treated to fresh vegetables from the garden. The house dog showed up at the table to beg, but refused to have anything to do with cucumber. At some point the son and heir was introduced, two women from the neighborhood joined in and the talk and laughter ran on and on. It was a great party, and I enjoyed myself immensely.
You'd expect my memory to become blurred, but I can see the incidents, the faces, the light through the beer jug with crystal clarity. I clearly remember getting up and doing the Russian toast "we will meet under the table" to laughter from the matrons. But the sequence of events has totally come apart in my memory, and I have photos of things I have no memory of doing. Nor do I remember leaving.
Jug of beer
Anyway, I sobered up enough on the drive to remember being surprised that the street with my hotel in Panevežys was really dark, and peopled with what seemed to be exclusively prostitutes. And thus I arrived at the Hotel Romantic, reeling drunk and clutching more beer bottles than I could comfortably carry. After explaining about the hospitality of Lithuanian brewers the receptionist let me check in.
The next day I bought some "bombs", 1-liter PET bottles, to rate in my room. As I enter the hotel the receptionist bursts out laughing, saying "still with the bottles, huh?" I can only reply, sheepishly, "it's a long story."
And it is, so I'll have to leave the rest for later posts. Suffice it to say that I came away even more convinced than ever that Lithuanian beer culture is something truly special. The blog posts to follow will show why.
Read | 2013-08-30 15:44
As a favour to me Vidmantas had left the most interesting brewery as the last of the day, so that we could spend more time there
Read | 2016-08-21 14:14
bailey - 2013-08-06 15:27:43
What a marvelous evocation of the sense of panic that an over-generous host can provoke!
Vidma Alutis - 2013-08-07 02:41:31
waiting for your next parts of remembrances from Lithuania! keep your glass high!
Arno - 2016-10-05 17:46:33
Hi, read your rough guide book and I am really excited to visit. We are taking a long weekend over thanksgiving to go to Vilnius. I tried to follow the link to BeerTourism.lt and the server won't let me for some reason. Do you have other contact info for them?
Mark Fannin - 2020-07-04 21:20:36
I subscribe to basicbrewing youtube channel and learned about keptinis. Then I ordered your book, "Historical Brewing Techniques", which led me to his page because it was a footnote on page 2. What a great journey to a wonderful subject. I am new to brewing and will give this method a whirl. I'm enjoying your book very much. It's obvious you put a ton of work into citations, research, and validating data - and still the book reads easily. Sincerely, Mark in Colorado.