A Baltic Beer Journey, Part 3
The last leg of my Baltic journey about a month-and-a-half back took me to Lithuania. I’ve been there several times before and know and admire their beer culture. Even their macro brews are totally OK – all the major breweries make a decent porter and main Lithuanian brewery Svyturys won a couple of medals in the World Beer Cup recently, including a Gold in the Dortmunder/Export or German-style Oktoberfest beer category for their Svyturys Ekstra.
But the real reason to love Lithuanian beer culture is the profusion of local beers and breweries – I hesitate to use words like “micro” and “craft” as Lithuania so far is not at all influenced by the US beer scene but quite happy with their own brewing traditions. This inevitably leads to offerings being a bit samey – small breweries typically brew a lager, a dark lager, a porter and a farmhouse beer – often they all come in filtered and unfiltered varieties, and sometimes there’s a wheat beer in there, but that’s about it. But when these offerings are executed to a pretty high standards, it’s still OK – in my opinion, Lithuanian dark lagers are second to none, often a bit heavier and with a better mouthfeel than your typical dark lager, more akin to altbiers or schwarzbiers than plain dark lagers. And even though it gets a bit samey, some breweries have some delightfully oddball offerings. Two of my favourites are Vilniaus Alus, the only brewery in the capital, and Čižo Alus, a small family-run brewery (owner is Ramunas Čižo, a fourth-generation brewer – the family has been brewing on the same site since 1865). As breweries, they couldn’t be more different: Vilniaus Alus is more of a small-scale macro brewery that exports quite a lot of their brews to their neighbouring countries, whereas Ramunas Čižo makes only one beer that hardly makes it outside the lake Sartai area except for a few specialist pubs and restaurants in Vilnius and Kaunas.
Favorites from Viliniaus Alus include their spiced dark ale Tamsusis su žolelėmis (literally “Dark with spices”) – seek it out on tap rather than bottled as the tap version is a massive ABV 8.2 and full of boozy character and a mouthwatering melange of spice flavours. The bottled version is more modest at ABV 5.6 but still good, though you should avoid the exported version you can find in for example Latvia, which is even weaker and considerably less flavourful at ABV 5.2. Other must-try beers are the strong old ales 13 Statiniu and 13 Statiniu Tamsusis, ABV 14.0 monsters in itty-bitty cute 20 cl bottles. The light version has wine and brandy notes and plenty of alcohol warmth and is a great dessert beer, whereas the dark is more complex and best drunk on its own: heavily spiced and with added honey, it is very much like a beer version of mulled wine with lots of cloves and cinnamon. Cizo Alus, on the other hand, makes just one beer: Ramunas Čižo II Kaimiskas. Kaimiskas means “Farmhouse beer” and Čižo makes it the traditional way: from bread rather than malt. This is a beer made in the same way as the Eastern European non/low-alcohol drink kvass (another favourite of mine), i.e. from fermentation of bread – just to a higher ABV (Ramunas’ farmhouse beer comes in at ABV 5.2). Like some kinds of kvass, this beer also has honey added to it, giving it a unique flavour of honeyed sourdough bread. This is an ace beer, especially when fresh, and it represents all that is great about Lithuanian brewing: old-fashioned in that good way, with great care taken about all the ingredients and a strong local connection. Čižo Alus does not bottle, at least not as far as I know, which is a bit of a pity but this is a beer that is really best enjoyed on tap. Note to Swedish readers: according to Ramunas himself, his beer is particularly good to have with crayfish.
So where do you get it on tap? Well, if you’re in Vilnius, you can go to one of the city’s two top beer bars: Snekutis or Alaus Namai. Snekutis means starling in Lithuanian and is not really one bar but two: the original bar in the Užupis district and the downtown Old Town bar not far from the railway station. I would definitely recommend the Užupis one over the Old Town location: when I was at the Old Town bar service was glacial, even a bit unfriendly, and the beer selection was not very clearly advertised. Still, other people have had better experiences so by all means give it a try – the selection of small brewery Lithuanian beers is still great. The Užupis Snekutis is the kind of bar for which the tired epithet “quirky” was invented – it’s a log cabin decorated with 60s-70s kitsch beer paraphernalia, including old rusted brewery equipment and Soviet-era beer lables and coasters. There’s also a small outside area. My Lithuanian is poor to non-existent but the menu has pictures and both food and beer are dirt cheap (4-5 LTL for a large beer, which equals about £1 – 1.15 – and with lots of food at 15 LTL or under you can easily get a beer and a hearty, well-prepared meal for under a fiver). The place seemed to be a real neighbourhood bar where office types and workmen freely rubbed shoulders after work (by contrast, the Old Town Snekutis seemed to attract a younger crowd as well as quite a few tourists). At both places, beer is well-kept and you can enjoy Lithuanian farmhouse beer the way it is meant to: fresh, and with a humungous portion of sausage and sauerkraut to go with it.
Alaus Namai means House of Beer – a bar that does what it says on the tin, as it where. It’s one of central Vilnius’s main student hangouts, but don’t let that dissuade you – the clientele is still mixed enough to keep the place sliding from lively to rowdy. It’s in an unassuming basement room in an unassuming building, quite central but still a bit off the main drag of the capital. The bar has about 15 taps, all from small Lithuanian breweries, none from the macros. In Lithuania, the old-fashioned way to identify the beer of a particular tap is not using a pump clip but by custom-building the entire tap/pump: thus, you can get Davra Alus beers from taps adorned with a carved wooden crow (the crow being the symbol of both Davra Alus and the Pakruojis district where the brewery is situated), Dundulis Alus beers from carved wood taps with pagan symbols, and so on. They also have a comprehensive selection of bottled Lithuanian beer. Plus, if you get tired of Lithuanian beers, they also have a decent bottle list of foreign beers, which includes mostly Belgian, German, and British beers (Young’s and Fuller’s are both represented). Beer and food menus are available in English and while food is a bit more expensive than at Snekutis it’t still ridiculously cheap by London standards (but then, almost anywhere is). You can get beer and food for under a fiver here too if you stay away from the big dishes like the mixed sausage plate (which easily feeds four rather than the advertised two, by the way). Must-try beers here are the Şenoliu Senovinis (ABV 6.9), a stonker of a farmhouse beer with a distinct sourdough flavour, tart, citric and refreshing, and the Paliūniško Medutis (ABV 5.5), a farmhouse beer made with honey.
Between these two places, you can get a good overview of Lithuanian beer. After my stays there, I am convinced that when Lithuanian brewers start taking influences from the US and other progressive brewing nations, the world will sit up and take notice. There’s enough tradition and brewing know-how in Lithuania to rival Germany or Britain, so if a brewer here decides to get with the program and make more contemporary beers, there’s every chance it will be a runaway success. It’s a cliché, but the combo of tradition and innovation is hard to beat and Lithuania’s got one half of the equation down pat.
Posted on July 6, 2012, in Pub & bar, Travel and tagged 13 Statiniu, 13 Statiniu Tamsusis, Alaus Namai, Davra Alus, Dundulis Alus, Paliūniško Medutis, Ramunas Čižo II Kaimiskas, Snekutis, Svyturys, Svyturys Ekstra, Tamsusis su žolelėmis, Vilniaus Alus, Şenoliu Senovinis, Čižo Alus. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.