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The Farmhouse Brewing Traditions of Lithuania

Traveling Connoisseur: Top Secret
The Farmhouse Brewing Traditions of Lithuania

After driving through empty stretches of flat land lined haphazardly with half-collapsed barns, passing by the odd town or city still surrounded by the concrete vestiges of communist rule, filled with aging populations still carrying strife on their curved backs and scarred foreheads, it is difficult to believe a real farmhouse brewing movement, promoting unpasteurized and unfiltered brews, is alive and well in Lithuania. Yet that is the conclusion one inevitably comes to after visiting many of the country’s quirky beer bars and countryside breweries and sampling its many delectable beers.

An old homebrewer from Biržai, the diminutive capital of Lithuanian beer culture, still buys his ingredients from a shop simply called “Apyniai, Salyklas” (Hops, Malt), close to a beer store named “Alus” (Beer), not far from a bar branded “Pilstomas Alus” (Draught Beer). Such is the poetry of marketing in these parts. This man is a gentle and generous brewer too, which is not necessarily traditional in reclusive northeastern Lithuania. Although most drinkers there will say real beer starts at eight percent alcohol, this homebrewer spares no grain for he has learned that every source of barley sugar is precious. His “trečiokas,” or third-running brew, was a tradition born of necessity, a question of survival for times when provisions were scarce. Still, this table beer he brews by force of habit is as beautifully earthy and herbal as his regular-strength “alus.”

When the Soviets were being shown out of Lithuania and private business prospects began thriving, no less than 400 breweries started up. But once regulations had been put in place by the new local authorities, close to 250 of those small breweries were forced to close, faced with the impossibility of answering to the imposed sanitary standards. Today the number of breweries oscillates between 50 and 70. And a lot of small countryside brewers are struggling to make ends meet, faced by ferocious competition from the influx of multinational breweries. But the secret countryside brewing traditions of Lithuania are still alive and truly captivating.

In Vilnius, whose old town center is protected by the UNESCO World Heritage Foundation, a few bars have opened up in the last few years to showcase the brews of the countryside, giving a tasteful glimpse of what is going on a couple of hundred kilometers to the north in the hinterlands. Most Lithuanians don’t even know there are dozens of rustic brewers in their own country, so bars like Alaus Namai, Šnekutis, Šnekutis Užupis and Bambalynė are godsends. Visiting the hidden breweries in the northeast that supply them can prove to be quite a chore, even for locals. The level of organization needed for a stranger to see these brewers is considerably higher.

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The local alus can be a strange but mesmerizing brew.


A Rewarding, But Challenging Trek
Expensive gas prices ($8 a gallon), infrequent public transport and low income mean few people in Lithuania travel about in their own country. Furthermore, a foreigner traveling to the far reaches of Lithuania to discover the people who’ve enabled the brewing traditions to endure has to hire an interpreter. Otherwise, many obstacles appear from out of the blue. For one, a stark distrust of strangers, bred by the Soviet tattletale mentality of old, can stop you in your tracks. Even with a pre-arranged appointment through a well-known figure in the area, tiny Dvareliškiu Alus, a farmhouse brewery in a wooded area of Pasvalys, was far from welcoming. Upon arrival, we noticed a few one-liter plastic bottles of beer standing on the ground near a 10-foot wooden cross erected in the lawn. After a few minutes of waiting around, a burly man peered through a door on the second floor of the house. By visibly pointing he told us to take the bottles and... go elsewhere. Hospitality doesn’t seem to be a trait all northeastern Lithuanians share.

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The wary Udriene is an exception to the rule of secrecy.


Exhibit number two: upon arriving in Pakruojis, my Lithuanian translator  Martynas, who is a passionate homebrewer, took it upon himself to visit a neighborhood bar where some countryside brews could be found. He found a house on which the usual “Pilstomas Alus” was written. “Draught Beer” could only mean quality beer in these parts. First off, the front door was locked. A decoy surely because he heard noise coming from the back of the house, so he walked around and indeed found a second door. His accent not being the same as the people from the brewing northeast, tension immediately rose in the room and he felt compelled to leave after seeing the waitress take her time to pour him a pint of the Joalda brew the men were drinking. Imagine if they’d heard him speak a different language altogether...

“She doesn’t boil at all, adding a hop tea in the mash and in the fermenter.”

Moreover, most breweries in these parts are open only by appointment. Jovaru Alus, in the hamlet of Jovarai, used to have a roofed terrace open to the public and a three-table tasting room inside open every morning from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. But these days, Aldona Udriene, whom some call the queen of countryside brewers, opens only for people who give her advance notice. “It’s safer this way,” she says. Her house also has no sign whatsoever to advertise the fact that she has a brewery and is willing to accept guests. These beautiful signs are hidden inside. “People in the neighborhood would break them or take them down,” she said worriedly.

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A few rounds at the Šnekutis locations, which “import” from the farmhouse brewers, confirm there is something special about Lithuanian brews.


Beacons of The Countryside Brewing Scene
Udriene, who turns out to be the exception to the rule of secrecy despite her wariness, brews  some of the finest examples of what can be distinctive in Lithuanian countryside beer. She doesn’t boil at all, adding a hop tea in the mash and in the fermenter. Yet her two beers show no signs of lactic acid or bacteria. She uses a yeast strain that was harvested by one of her ancestors and which has been revived countless times over the years, without the help of a lab. It even used to be stored under ground, in the garden, in hotter seasons, to be dug up when needed. Yet her beers don’t show any sign of fatigue or quirky side effects from this mutated yeast. In fact her base beer, Jovaru Alus, is a comfortable quaffer with a portly malt character that quickly dips into a delicate, earthy finish. This yeast is also quite voracious; a lab test upon returning home to Montreal showed that the final gravity of her beer was 1.0025. Yet the highly attenuated beer tasted like a malt-forward ESB with a slightly eccentric finish. Mesmerizing.
 
Mrs. Udriene is a long time friend of Valentas Vaškevičius, the iconic mustachioed owner of the two Šnekutis bars in Vilnius. Behind placid, pirate-like stares – or gung-ho smiles when cameras pop up – Valentas is one of the stoutest defenders of this Lithuanian brewing tradition. Insisting on serving only quality countryside brews, even if that means getting them himself or paying for an expensive delivery, he has succeeded in not only promoting the craft of these unknown brewers, but also enables some to actually make a living almost entirely through sales at his two bars.

While the more modest Šnekutis located in the old town of Vilnius is distinguished by the many idiosyncratic brews flowing from the founts, the other Šnekutis location in the neighborhood of Užupis could be branded one of the most memorable beer bars on the entire European continent. The wooden exterior oozes with quirky Lithuanian wooden art and could easily feature in a horror film. Old farm tools abound inside, as yellowed pictures of Lithuanian beer history garnish the walls and tree stumps serve as roof-bearing posts. And the beers served here can be as impressive as the decor.

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Clockwise from top left: A glass of Jovaru Alus from the astute hands and mind of Aldona Udriene; the beautiful setting of the Pasvlys Mill; Ramuno Cizo sustains the almost forgotten Keptinis style; Pinava Alutis and Jonas Morkuno are two of the countryside brewers to be found at the Kaziuko Mugo festival in Vilnius; casks aplenty at Davra’s brewery in Pakruojis.


The Distinctive Flavors of Lithuanian Beer
A few rounds at either of the Šnekutis locations will quickly prove to you there is something special about Lithuanian brews. First off, their Šviesus, or pale brews, nearly always possess a decidedly toasty profile which moves in and out of nut oil flavors. Needless to say, there are no other pale lagers or blond ales brewed elsewhere on the continent that possess such prominent toastiness. A fine example of this unique character is a beer called Daujotu, from Davra, in the aforementioned village of Pakruojis. Low on hop presence, like nearly all Lithuanian brews, this supremely malty libation exudes a powerful honeyed toast perfume before sticking even more toastiness to the palate for an everlasting finish. Yet it always remains a drinkable brew, whether from the tap or the one-liter plastic bottle popular with these brewers.

"There’s an earthy finish which tends to branch out into wacky subplots.”

The Tamsus, or dark brews, also distinguish themselves greatly from German Dunkels, Czech Tmavés, English Porters, or any other dark beer styles to have emerged from more renowned brewing traditions. Once again, they stand out because of their hugely malty profile, one which exhibits raisin flavors like no other style in the beer world. Think Special B malts, but with a distinct Medjool date depth. When used generously, this raisin-y wealth can be spectacular, like the brew called Velykinis Tamsus (“Easter Dark”) from Aukštaitijos Bravorai. Another succulent pint in which to discover this flavor profile would be Varniuku from Davra, an extremely popular brew with the younger crowd discovering these tastes of old. Both intrinsic flavors (toasty and raisiny) are present at varying degrees in nearly all Šviesus and Tamsus brews made with local barley malt.

The countryside beers like those of Mrs. Udriene do not suggest any flavor similarities with Belgian or French farmhouses ales; they are rather dry, have high attenuation, and show earthy angles. But they possess a well-rounded first half where toffee-like flavors give the allusion of hefty residual sugars or proteins.

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Glass bottles are the exception in Lithuania, where countryside brewers favor one-liter screw cap plastic bottles.


The beers from villages such as Pakruojis or Pasvalys and Linkuva, plus countless others from this northeastern countryside share a common trait. There’s an earthy finish which tends to branch out into wacky subplots, some of which recall off flavors and/or light funk from yeasts originally found in the wild several human generations ago and since mutated. Not all of these brewers have admitted to foregoing boiling, but one can presume that is another technique that unites them.

As for the yeast, as part of a volunteer project a sequencing center at McGill University in Montreal came up with some fascinating results. Marie-Julie Favé, a doctoral candidate in biology, found that the yeast used by Mrs. Udriene, taken from one of her Jovaru Alus brought back from Lithuania, might be a Saccharomyces strain which does not appear in the GenBank database. In other words, the DNA sequence of this yeast strain could not be matched to any of the strains which have been deposited there by researchers around the world for the last 20 years.

Even More Uniqueness
Yet another brewer whose beer reeks of tradition, Ramūno Čižo can be found in the lake country in the east near the border of Belarus. He is the sole purveyor of a forgotten style called Keptinis, in which a malt bread is baked from the spent grain and then broken into hot water before reassembly into the yet unfermented wort. This technique apparently adds light flavors of torrefaction and a darker color. Čižo doesn’t boil either. Contrary to some reclusive brewers who don’t feel like talking about their work, this highly charismatic man proudly demonstrates old style brewing techniques with rustic equipment in city fairs across the country. His daughter is being trained in keeping this Keptinis style alive, so there is hope for this dark quencher – if the few bars in Vilnius keep up their missionary work.

Another team of people who have been promoting quality traditional beers in Lithuania work as the Aukštaitijos Bravorai group (Breweries of Higher Lithuania), which owns six microbreweries. They’ve even emulated the Keptinis style of Čižo’s, but with a modern flair and gusto which propels the lightly smoky, bready flavors in a polished body in a manner the original style could never achieve.

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Bars featuring rustic beer are godsends for brewers and drinkers alike.


An important figure in the renaissance movement of Lithuanian brewing heritage, Aukštaitijos Bravorai has the funds to help spread the good word. The group has been able to position its creations in some supermarkets and upscale restaurants in the cities. The company has opened a few bars (like the wonderful Gyvas Alaus Krautuvelé in Panevėžys) and a few little beer stores to showcase its wares. More importantly, the brews are often as stellar in taste as they are creative. One called I.O. Boiko, brewed by the Kurkliu brewery, displays generous rye flavors and spicy hops completed by haystack aromas and banana esters. Among other delicious brews, the Kupiškio brewery makes Magaryčių Alus in which farmhouse subtleties garnish lightly toasted malts and actual hazelnuts, seamlessly leading to herbal, wooden hops bitterness. One can almost imagine the old food bunker in which this brew is conditioned.

Butautu Dvaro is another brewery from Aukštaitijos Bravorai which strays from the cheap but practical plastic bottles seen everywhere else. Settled in an old manor, or dvaro, which Soviets supposedly used for revelry during the occupation, these brewers crank out the cleanest and most approachable beers even though fermentation is still open and worts are cooled in coolships like most countryside breweries. The brewery’s Šviesus possesses that toasted malt signature and its Tamsus has the raisin-y angles. But they are both meant to greet the unsuspecting palate subtly.

Like every beer made by a member of Aukštaitijos Bravorai, similar diplomacy coupled with modest barnyard notes and spicier hop lengths can be found in Taruškų brewery’s 500-milliliter glass bottles – a luxury in these parts. The Taruškų Šviesus is unique in its flavor profile and impeccably rendered. With such an impressive display of technique, creativity and business acumen, one might say the future of Lithuanian brewing heritage lies not only in the Vilnius specialty bars, but also in the continued success of this brewery group.

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This way to the beer. The temperatures for brewing or serving are often cool in Lithuania — as are receptions for outsiders.


Getting Your Fair Share
If you find it attractive to hire an interpreter in hopes that brewers open their doors for you, Vidmantas Laurinavičius of Alaus Brolija (Beer Brotherhood) can be of great help. He can be reached at [email protected]. If that seems too daunting, the best time of year to discover Lithuanian culture all in one spot is the Kaziuko Mugė festival in early March. This artisans’ fair brings in thousands of visitors from everywhere across the country to revel in all sorts of local products found in hundreds of booths set up along many boulevards and squares all around Vilnius.

Over a dozen countryside brewers make the drive down from the northeast to the capitol to showcase their wares, making it the easiest way to sample beers from a large collection of the remote brewers without having to put on your best Lithuanian accent when calling up to request a visit. Here, you can taste a host of other brewing traditions, such as the brews of Piniava Alutis, in which raspberry tree branches or red clovers serve as a false bottom in the mash tun.

You can also sample the hearty local cuisine and meet some of these countryside brewers, who seem friendlier at the festival such as Jonas Morkuno. If you ask about yeast and techniques, you’re likely to hear one of the running gags of the farmhouse brewers. They will jokingly offer to share their car or their house with you before they part with their yeast and brewing secrets.

Who says hospitality is not a Lithuanian trait?

Photos by Martin Thibault