Up and coming beer destinations?

<< 2015-03-06 18:04 >>

Gediminas' tower, Vilnius city centre

The subject for this month's The Session was: "What are the up-and-coming beer locations that you see as the next major players in the beer scene?" Well. I couldn't really leave that one unanswered, although for regular readers I suppose the answer is not exactly going to come as a surprise. Obviously, Vilnius. I mean, really, how could it not be?

Places like London and Copenhagen have their claims, but I consider them well established as beer destinations. Stockholm is very interesting, but not that exciting. The same goes for Helsinki. Oslo has a lot going on, but the prices are obviously going to be a problem. Barcelona failed to impress me. Eastern Europe has lots of fantastic cities, but in beer terms most of them leave a lot to be desired, except obviously Prague and other Czech cities, which I would describe as well established by now.

So why Vilnius?

Budapest, Riga, and Tallinn are lovely cities, and they do have craft beer, but so what? Just about every country in Europe has a craft beer revolution going on right now. Having some IPAs doesn't make a beer destination stand out any more. You need something more than that, and Vilnius has that in spades.

St Anne's church, Vilnius

Let's start with the city itself. Vilnius has one of the biggest old towns in Europe, at 3.6km2, with enough baroque architecture to have given name to the separate sub-style Vilnius Baroque. The winding cobbled streets have masses of charm, as does the bohemian suburb of Užupis. The main streets are elegant and modern, and further out you find a business district of skyscrapers as well as some (not quite so lovely, but still interesting) Soviet architecture.

The food is not just good, but also local and interesting in its own right. Lithuanian cheese is worthy of a study of its own, and available in many of the pubs. Cured meats and cured fish, all Lithuanian, are found in many pubs, too. Kepta duona, a beer snack made from bread sticks fried in oil and garlic, is highly recommended. The smoked, boiled pig's ears are more of an acquired taste. There are several restaurants, even a chain called Forto Dvaras, dedicated to traditional Lithuanian cuisine. There's even a culinary heritage foundation, usually just called Fondas, which certifies dishes as being authentically Lithuanian. (Look for their logo in the Forto Dvaras menu.) There's also truly rare minority cuisines here, like the karaite.

Plate of beer snacks

And there's the prices. Flights here are cheap, the food is really cheap (you can get a perfectly fine dinner for about 4 euros), and the beer is cheap. You can get a room in a historic 5-star hotel for 100 euros a night, or much less if you opt for something lower on the scale.

And, finally, there is the beer. To most people, farmhouse ale is the same as saison and biere de garde. Two hours in Vilnius is enough to destroy that illusion for ever. Uniquely in the world, apart from Belgium, Lithuania has not just preserved its ancient farmhouse brewing culture, but managed to commercialize it. There are at least 15 breweries in Lithuania brewing beers that are either real farmhouse ale in the Lithuanian tradition, or to some degree commercialized versions of farmhouse ale.

As if that were not enough, in Lithuania, even a normal lager often has a flavour that's uniquely Lithuanian. This is because several of the smaller lager breweries use Lithuanian malts, which really has a unique character of its own. In addition, they often brew lager the way it should be, without high gravity fermentation, and with long lagering times, just as lager should be made.

"Ordinary" lager

And, thirdly, there's a whole segment of breweries that are neither farmhouse nor ordinary lager breweries. Some of them are modern craft, others are Lithuanianized craft, and some are just unusual. These brew all kinds of things, from good IPAs and stouts, to recreations of historic Lithuanian brewing techniques (beer mashed with hot stones), highly unusual spice beers, very strong beers (up to 14-15%) unlike any others I've had, and so on.

We could add to this the unusual ingredients used in many of these beers (all of them with historical precedents): peas, red clover, raspberry stems, toasted hemp seeds, toasted walnuts, etc etc.

And of course styles that nobody's heard of, like keptinis, and gira. In my opinion, even pale and dark Lithuanian beer, šviesusis and tamsusis, deserve BJCP styles of their own, because they are so like each other, and so unlike beers elsewhere. Think Belgian blonde and dubbel, even if it's not the same flavours.

Not your average pub

Plus, there are the excellent bars, which really have a spirit of their own, and are worth visiting just for that reason. Vilnius had a great selection of bars when I was there in 2010, but every year since has seen more of them open. Now the choice of bars is so great that in two and a half days of walking pub to pub last weekend we didn't manage to get through even all of the most important ones.

I've been exploring Lithuanian beer for almost five years now, and I'm still discovering new things all the time. The more I learn, the more exciting it gets. I keep saying Lithuania is one of the world's great beer cultures and people keep not getting it. I'm just a random beer blogger, so I don't really expect to make any difference, but surely something this interesting cannot remain hidden for much longer?

See my short guide or the book for more information.

Trakai island castle

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Brett Domue - 2015-03-12 17:37:02

Thanks for your contribution to The Session #97!

I haven't been to Vilnius, but it's been on my to-do list for quite a while. And now, it's moving much further up the list!

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