Craft beer comes to Lithuania

<< 2015-04-06 15:10 >>

History repeating itself?

I was invited to the Žmogšala beer festival in Vilnius to present my book on Lithuanian beer, but the flight times meant I had to spend a long weekend. I decided this was a good time to bring some of my friends who were curious about Lithuanian beer, so Knut Albert, Geir Ove, and brother in-law Hans Christian joined me. And since I now know a few people in Vilnius I planned to meet a few of them as well.

Our first stop was Šnekutis Užupis, logically. We were on our second pint when in walks Remigijus. He downloaded my book, got to page 7 where I ask for volunteer translators, and immediately sent me an email offering his services. He's been amazingly helpful, so some future blog posts will be based in part on his translations. He kindly brought three Lithuanian cheeses from a nearby farmer's market. They tasted very different, but turned out to be the same cheese at three different stages of aging. As with the beer, this was a Lithuanian type of cheese.

We moved on to stop number two, Špunka Užupis, just down the road. It's a lovely, small bar tied to the Dundulis brewery (about which more later). The bar has a dedicated following of Lithuanians who know each other and can always be found deep in conversation over their beers. It was at about this point that Geir Ove, tasting a new beer, suddenly said "this one tastes rather Lithuanian." And so it did, probably from the malts. These flavours are distinctive enough that a couple of hours is enough to teach a perceptive drinker to recognize them.

At Špunka Užupis

The following day I'd agreed to do a talk for a group of Swedes travelling to the Žmogšala festival, organized as a group by Swedish importer Original Brands STHLM. They'd gathered some more locals as well, which meant that after the talk I got to talk to, among others, Simonas Gutautas, who is head brewer at the aforementioned Dundulis.

It turned out that Simonas is from the farmhouse brewing area in north Lithuania. His mother used to brew, and she used juniper in her beer. I thought Latvia was the southernmost limit of juniper use, but apparently not. Simonas also said that although the commercial farmhouse ales are rather sweet, the farmhouse homebrewers make more bitter beers. As an example he cited home brewing legend Julius Simonaitis, whose brewing was described in the book that got me interested in farmhouse ale five years ago.

Julius grows his own barley, has his own hop garden, and uses the village yeast, just like his ancestors. He makes his own malts, and used enough hops to shock the Danish brewer who visited him. And unlike most of the farmhouse brews, his beer can be cellared for months with no ill effects. He's also quite a character. Being famous for brewing means he often gets offers to sell his beer, but he always rejects them, saying "I'm not a beermaker (Lithuanian expression), who sells beer for money, but a brewer." He brews twice a year for extended family gatherings and also serves the beer to friends and visitors. Brewing, he says, "is an act of love," not something to be sold.

Talking with Martynas

I raise the question of perhaps being able to brew together with him, but Martynas shakes his head. Julius is getting old and wants to retire from farming. In fact, he's been trying to sell his farm for a while now. So that's one star of world brewing culture about to fade.

And it's not the only one. Last year Jonas Morkunas, a commercial farmhouse brewer, died, which closed his brewery. Others among the traditional brewers are also getting old, and it's not clear how long they can carry on. And Martynas tells me the countryside in northern Lithuania is becoming depeopled. Now that the EU has opened its borders, most of the young people work elsewhere, leaving only children and grandparents behind. So this is a beer culture that is very much in danger.

One thing that's always made Vilnius stand out as a beer destination is that nearly all of the beer available was Lithuanian beer. You could find a few imports, but they were exceptions. The Spunka bars started changing that with a few quality imports from the UK, Czech Republic and so on. Now a new bar had opened with hundreds of the same craft beers as everywhere else.

Another new development was that before, the only Lithuanian brewer doing craft-like things was Dundulis. Then, suddenly, the biggest industrial brewer, Švyturys, launched a new "craft" portfolio called Raudonų Plytų, doing IPAs, wits, etc. And now other Lithuanian breweries have thrown themselves on the bandwagon, making crafty styles. Which is all natural and reasonable, but there don't seem to be any new farmhouse breweries.

So it doesn't seem too much of a stretch to fear that before too long, the Lithuanian beer scene may well look exactly like the one in Riga or Barcelona.

Anyway, on the Saturday the Žmogšala festival opened and we headed there. It was held in an old theatre, a nicely elegant setting for a beer festival. Inside, the hall was backed with benches and people chatting and lots and lots of tables filled with beer bottles. There were craft breweries from all over Europe, with good representation from Estonia and Latvia as well. The Lithuanian farmhouse brewers had a couple of tables, too, with more traditional Lithuanian beer than I'd ever seen in one place before, so I got to try a few new ones.

At the festival

The Swedish group I'd spoken to the day before included a journalist, a blogger, and so on, and these had a small panel up on the stage discussing Lithuanian beer. It was interesting to hear them beg the Lithuanians to "don't go modern," "appreciate what you have," "take care of the traditions," and so on. That part of what they said was exactly the same as the conclusion to my own talk a few hours later.

Talking more to Martin from Original Brands I found that they occasionally import Dundulis beers for events and so on, but the shelf-life is short, which makes things hard. And to get the real farmhouse beers into Sweden is even more difficult. Some of them are raw ales (the wort isn't boiled) so shelf-life is very short indeed. The farmhouse brewers typically cannot produce very much, either.

We met up with Remigijus again and discovered that he's setting up his own business exporting various products from Lithuania, including beer. He told me he's running into exactly the same problems. So it looks like people wanting Lithuanian beer will have to go there, and go there soon.

On the first day, at Šnekutis Užupis I gave the barman a copy of my book, thinking it would be useful for confused tourists wondering what on earth it was they were drinking. This made him so happy, he afterwards came over to our table with a 2-litre plastic bottle of Jovaru Alus, an icon of Lithuanian farmhouse brewing.

I put it in the fridge in my hotel room and served myself nightcaps every night, taking three days to finish it, and enjoying every sip. The beer kept changing, presenting new facets all the time: earthy oily nuts, wafts of honey and fruit, subtle bitter edges, full soft body. I felt almost bad drinking it instead of taking it home and sharing it, but being a raw ale it keeps poorly. It may not last, either.


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Martin Warren - 2015-04-12 19:52:40

Another excellent, mouth-watering blog. Thank you. Sorry to say that when enlarging the images I get an HTTP error 500.

Lars Marius - 2015-04-13 02:36:31

@Martin: Thank you for letting me know. I've fixed it temporarily now. Will make a more permanent fix later.

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