A Baltic Beer Journey, Part 1

Beer emergency, anyone? Brewery Cesu brings the party wagon.

My recent stay in the Baltics (Latvia and Lithuania 23 May – 9 June) coincided not-so-coincidentally with Latvia Beer Fest, the main beer festival of Latvia – this year held in Vermanes Park in central Riga. I’ve been to the Baltics before and I really enjoy the beers there (particularly the Lithuanian ones – Lithuania has a great brewing heritage), though there is relatively little variety – regular and dark lager being the typical mainstays, but there are some surprises.

Unfortunately there weren’t too many of those surprises at Latvia Beer Fest – as someone pointed out, this was a beer festival with emphasis on the “festival” rather than the “beer”. The venue was great – a big park in the center of town had been cordoned off and filled with beer stalls, tables, chairs, bouncy castles for the kids (at least I assume they were for the kids) and other sundry activities. The whole thing had a very family-friendly vibe to it and indeed I saw a lot of families there (there was a whole big play area for kids next to the bouncy castles) – it all felt very safe and relaxed and I did not see a single fall-d0wn-drunk person during the whole weekend. There were plenty of food options – my favourite beer snack was the freshly deep-fried potato

Crisps-on-a-stick, anyone?

crisp spiral on a stick (see picture), but there was a lot of other rustic, beer festival-type food: sausages, sauerkraut (love sauerkraut!), kebabs, fried potatoes, ribs etc etc (nothing much for vegetarians though). The beer stalls were spread out around the park rather than concentrated in one part, which also made the atmosphere more relaxed as it prevented crowding – if there was a long line at one beer stall you could always go to the next one. So all in all, the festival aspects were great.

In terms of beer, all major Latvian brands were present, plus quite a few minor ones. There was also a Czech stall and a German stall (courtesy of Paulaner), and two stalls housing breweries from neighbouring Lithuania, notably Vilniaus Alus. Unfortunately for me – though I am sure Euro beer geeks were not the target group for the festival as it had a very local feel – the major brands focused on their ‘standard’ offerings (i.e. lager and dark lager) and did not bring any of their more specialized offerings (I looked in vain for a single Baltic porter, no mean feat at a Baltic beer festival). But there was still some interesting stuff – what follows are no detailed tasting notes, just the highlights.

Bauskas serving it up in style

Brewery Bauskas Alus was overall the hit of the festival – their Gasais Nefiltraitas (“light unfiltered”, ABV 5.2) was an unfiltered lager in a kind of a Dortmunder style, and the only beer at the festival that had a clear, distinguishable hop character (Noble, of course). That extra little bite of citrus rind bitterness made this into a lager-plus, very refreshing. Their Tumšais Specialais (“dark special”, ABV 5.5) was more of a schwarzbier or altbier than a dark lager and thus more characterful – toffee-like malts with hints of cake batter, with a restrained but nevertheless present bitterness to balance it out. The slightly higher ABV gave the Specialais a very pleasant, smooth mouthfeel, too.

The tiny countryside brewery Abula (beers brewed under the brand name Brengulu Alus) got my hopes up with a very nice unfiltered lager, Brengulu Gasais (“Brengulu light”, ABV 5.6), a malty, cookie dough-flavoured lager more in the kellerbier/zwickelbier vein so typical of Baltic small “farmhouse” breweries. It also had a faint, saison-style tartness and a faint burnt bread aftertaste, nicely complex for a lager. However, Abula’s dark offering was as disappointing as the light was lovely: Brengulu Tumšais (“Brengulu dark”, ABV 5.6 – you’re getting the basics of Latvian beer terminology now, right?) – it’s syrupy sweetness and faint spice notes could not hide the essential watery nature of the beer – very thin in the mouth and thin on the palate.

My favourite of the festival ended up being a Lithuanian brewery: Vilniaus Alus, which I was familiar with from before. Their wheat beer was as good as ever, as was their spiced dark ale – though when I came to Lithuania I realized that the version I had in Latvia was a lower-ABV version – 5.2 as opposed to the mighty 8.2 that is the norm for the draft version of this wonderful herbed ale in Lithuania. But more on that anon.

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Posted on June 17, 2012, in Event, Travel and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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