Tuesday, 12 May 2020

Tasting beer: a confession

Here’s an odd confession for a beer blogger – sometimes, I can’t really taste beer.

This has been going on for a couple of years. It comes and goes. I can taste some beers more than others. One day my palette might be operating at full power, but the next I might find the IPA in my glass no more flavoursome than tap water.

The problem isn’t my sense of taste so much as smell, which intermittently loses intensity. As is fairly obvious, olfactory perception is a large component of taste, and this is particular important with beer. In fact, I don’t seem to have any issues tasting food. It’s the relationship between aroma and taste in beer (but also coffee and wine) that I struggle with. Thankfully I can still enjoy scented candles, freshly cut grass and dusty libraries.

There isn't a clear medical reason for this, according to ENT specialists who’ve shoved cameras so far up my nostrils that my eyes watered. I’ve tried so many different nasal sprays that I could probably start a side blog noting their nuances. In September, I had an operation to cut back inflamed soft tissue behind my nose. None of it seems to make much difference.

Should I admit this? Might it damage whatever shred of credibility I have as someone who opines on beer? Well, hopefully it goes without saying that if I drink a beer than I can’t really taste, I’m not likely to mention it on this blog. It’d be dull reading if I did – every post would say “yet another beer that is almost completely devoid of flavour” – and unfair, too. I decided to write this post whilst reflecting on how my drinking has changed over the past couple of years, and how I’ve adapted to the situation.

One factor is temperature. It’s not exactly a revelation that flavour and aroma is slightly muted by colder temperatures, but I’m particularly sensitive to this. Any beer that’s been kept in my fridge needs 30-60 minutes at room temperature before I get stuck in. This is more difficult in pubs, where keg beer is often served far too cold for me. If I’m just having one pint, it tends to be from cask, which is (hopefully) cool but not cold.

This gets complicated if I’m settling in for the evening. Let’s take my beloved Evening Star in Brighton as an example – they’re likely to have numerous beers across cask and keg that I’ll want to try over the course of a session. I have to be a tactical here; start by ordering two beers, one cask and one keg. Drink the cask beer first, allowing the other glass to warm up a little. Then, there’ll be a kind of rolling system, one beer ready to drink whilst another ‘matures’ on the table in front of me. I’ve made it work but it involves more thought and planning than a simple evening in the pub should, and answering the inevitable “why have you got two beers?” question can be embarrassing and long-winded.

Then there’s beer style. Heavily hopped IPAs are the unfortunate casualty in all this; although very bold in flavour, they rely heavily on the aromatics. I haven’t completely stopped drinking them, but I have to be pretty careful. What could be more disappointing than ordering a pricy 2/3rds of hazy, hyped DIPA and having to desperately chase the ghosts of flavours that should be dancing a samba on your tongue?

I’ve found myself gravitating towards simpler, subtler beers – not because my palette has ‘developed’ or ‘matured’, which would be self-congratulatory, elitist nonsense. I just find that the roasted coffee notes of a porter, the bready malt and grassy hops of a pilsner, the rustic hay and pepper of a saison, all present themselves boldly on my palette.

There is a satisfaction in going back to these beers, which can be unjustly overlooked in the IPA-driven craft beer world. I’d prefer to just drink whatever I wanted, though. And I’d like to go back to ordering one beer at a time. It would make buying rounds with my friends so much simpler.

Friday, 28 February 2020

On veganism and beer

Recently I told one of the young people I work with that I’m vegan, and apparently blew his mind. Every time I see him, he asks me a series of questions about how this works, ranging from “are those leather shoes?” to “can you have bread?” It is quite possible that he will one day ask me if vegans can drink beer, and I will laugh and say “of course we can.” Usually.

Once, it was simple. If you needed to ensure your beer was dairy-free, you could simply avoid anything sold as “milk stout.” Clear, obvious, right there in the name – this stout contains milk. Or at least, lactose, the sugar found in milk, which gives these beers their creamy sweetness. Sorry, vegans, look elsewhere. These days, lactose doesn’t always announce itself with such clarity.

By law, the presence of milk must be clearly signalled in ingredients lists on bottles and cans, so shopping for beer isn’t an issue. In a pub or bar, though, you don’t have access to this information. A pump clip might make things more obvious, but modern craft beer bars don’t always display these.
Certain beer styles are easily swerved. Take the much-maligned “pastry stout” subgenre (which, incidentally, I was fond of when I was merely vegetarian). Omnipollo’s Chocolate Vanilla Coconut Blackout Cake Imperial Stout doesn’t sound very plant-based, and I’m happy to stick to that assumption and look elsewhere. Terms like “milkshake” and “ice cream” may seem infantile when applied to beer, but they’re useful because they heavily imply the presence of lactose.

Beyond that, things can get a little hazy – no pun intended. Heavily dry-hopped IPAs, especially those with added fruit, increasingly turn to milk sugar for balance, as have some big, dark beers – often imperial stouts or even Baltic porters. At the point of sale, it can be difficult to establish whether these beers are suitable for vegans. You could ask the bar staff, but they often aren’t sure themselves. Looking online often isn’t much help either. The result is that I’m now hesitant to order beer styles once loved, just in case I end up with dairy ingredients in my glass.

Veganism is, for me and many others, a strongly held ethical position and as such, I would be irritated to unwittingly lapse on this conviction by drinking an inadequately-labelled, lactose-laden IPA. This shouldn’t be underestimated. But it is also worth remembering that some people are lactose intolerant, and such a mistake could cause them real discomfort.

To be clear, I don’t really care if breweries make beers that aren’t vegan, if that’s what they want to do.  But Ritchie Bosworth, head brewer at Coventry’s Twisted Barrel brewery, suggest there’s no need. “In IPAs/Pales, lactose is only really used to balance beers that have been badly designed in the first place, with sweetness required to balance an excessive use of hops,” he writes in an email. “In most cases, these pale beers are too vegetal/bitter to drink without the addition of lactose to balance them out.” All of Twisted Barrel’s beers (and all food served at their taproom) is, and always has been, vegan.

In dark beers, Twisted Barrel use several methods to replicate the sweetness and body of lactose. They mash at high temperatures, producing longer, complex sugar chains yeast struggles to process, leaving more sugars present in the final product. This is particularly effective with old English yeast strains that don’t ferment complex sugars. Oats and wheat mimic the sweet, creamy qualities, especially in combination with vanilla pods; this combination is often used in their pale beers too. In beers like Gods Twisted Sister: Breakfast Edition, oat milk is even added for smooth, silky texture. This goes in after the boil at a rate of around 1ml oat milk per litre of beer.

There is, then, an argument that brewers should think more carefully about the drinkers they’re losing by using lactose unnecessarily. But either way, my principal problem is that there is no consistency in the way pubs and bars communicate whether what they serve is suitable for vegans. Some breweries make efforts to communicate this their end, and I know I’ll always be safe with something from Cloudwater or Moor. Whether pubs pass on this message is less certain – sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn’t. If I walk into a bar with 10+ taps and only one is actually labelled vegan (which isn’t unfeasible), am I really to assume that none of the other options are suitable?

Isinglass remains a complicating factor. This fining agent, made from the swim bladders of farmed fish, isn’t really suitable for vegans or vegetarians. Frustratingly, its use is difficult to detect. It isn’t listed as an ingredient even when it’s used and bar staff often don’t know. Beers that don’t use it, perhaps not fining their beer at all, don’t always make this clear, either. I will confess to adopting a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy when it comes to isinglass – many vegans will be more particular.

By way of a solution, I point to my local brewery, Unbarred. They’re known for hazy IPAs and beers with culinary adjuncts or added flavours – Honeycomb Milkshake Pale and Chai Latte are fairly typical examples. Both contain lactose. However, in the Unbarred taproom, these beers are clearly marked with an ‘(L)’, and vegan beers with ‘(VG)’. This is so simple that I have to ask – why isn’t everybody already doing this?

Friday, 2 August 2019

Snapshots from Athens

The label on the bottle in front of me reads ‘New EnglandBarley Wine’. What, I wonder, is the impulse behind this seemingly contradictory collision of styles? Ignorance? Provocation? Is it a ploy to trick geeks like me into parting with their hard-earned Euros, or something genuinely inspired?

The blurb on the label is (quite reasonably) written in Greek characters, so this beer can’t explain itself to me. Only one thing for it – I taste it, in as open-minded a manner as possible. Sticky barley sugar registers first, then pithy marmalade. A lilt of tropical fruit before a big, bitter boozy orange finish, like a stiff Old Fashioned.

Later on, I look the beer up and find it’s brewed with Norwegian farmhouse yeast (kveik) and, just for a while, the concept of beer styles seems laughably inadequate.

Inside the Lazy Bulldog pub, you’ll find beer engines, vintage Guinness advertisements, and West Ham football scarves on the wall. Slick, perhaps recently painted, everything here is a little too neatly placed to really resemble a shabby English pub. Nor would I want it to – I’m not here for a pint of Pride, but for the extensive range of Greek beers on the bar.

I plump for Head Twister, the pale ale by Athens outfit Noctua. Is it the power of suggestion that makes it taste peculiarly of home? Served with a tight, creamy head, it’s all Digestive biscuits, elderflower and orange. I never thought I’d come to Greece and come across a dead ringer for Hophead.

I last about 5 minutes outdoors before a chilling breeze sends me back in. The sky’s darkening and the air feels charged. Sure enough, soon the streets and pavements are overflowing with rainwater and opportunistic street vendors emerge, seemingly from nowhere, flogging umbrellas.

Good news for Barley Cargo, the specialist beer bar in the centre of the city – it soon fills up. But their luck doesn’t last long – a few forks of lightening and growls of thunder later, and the lights go out. A piercing alarm beings to ring. The proprietor runs back and forth, on the phone, occasionally silencing the alarm, only for it to sound again moments later.

The lights flicker and come back on, accompanied by suddenly deafening music. The panicked barman runs behind the counter, reaching frantically for the volume dial and, in his haste, mistakenly turns it the wrong way.

Steeling myself for a wet wander back to my apartment, I order a glass of Sigri’s Sedusa, revelling in its warming qualities – sandalwood, crusty bread and cloves; orange zest and a little black pepper heat.

When I get back, I fail to operate the heating controls in my Air B&B and dry my shoes under the grill.

 General notes
  • Athens is not a huge beer town, but it is a good one. Aside from the aforementioned Barley Cargo, I’d recommend Brew Str. This friendly bottle shop has a small outdoor drinking space and is friendly and well-stocked with Greek beers. Although it’s a little way outside the city centre, a trip to The Local Pub is also essential. I’ve nothing against identikit industrial-chic craft beer bars per se, but I certainly prefer places like this, which are focused around good beer but also genuinely do seem to function as local pubs.
  • All the Greek beers I tried were good, at least. Several were excellent, none were infected or overcarbonated or any of the other issues you sometimes encounter in European countries with relatively young beer cultures. I was particularly impressed by KYKAO, from Patras, and the gorgeous Smoked Robust Porter from Chios.

Friday, 23 November 2018

Artisautza garagardoa Bilbon

There’s a resinous quality to the air on Goienkale, in Bilbao’s old town. Shops selling studded belts, Dr. Martens and Dead Boys records give this street a certain vibe – like Camden, but not trying so hard – which is completed by the groups of scruffy but friendly-looking young punks crouching outside the bars. The dank aromas might be something to do with them.

When I first visited Bilbao, aged around 14, my main priority was seeking out cheap Ramones CDs. That mission quite likely took me to this part of town, though I can’t really remember. It was probably the gently edgy feel to the place that made me fall in love with the city – it was one of the first places my parents took me on holiday that I actively enjoyed, rather than passively being dragged around between plates of chips and glasses of Coke in continental cafes.

Priorities changes, of course. There seems to be a punk show on at a squatted building down the road; but I’m more interested in wolfing down vegan pinxtos, the Basque equivalent of tapas, in a couple of the local bars. My introduction to Basque beer comes at Tirauki, where a selection of bottled beers displayed on the bar offer a welcome diversion from the Heineken brands on tap. From these, I opt for Pink Porter from local outfit La Txika de la Cerveza. I'm a little taken aback at first, not expecting vanilla and dark sugar that suggest rum ‘n’ raisin ice cream. Served cold and being relatively light of body, this hits a sweet spot between refreshing and interesting.

Moving out of the old town and crossing the river, I head for Café Bihotz. This place is intimate, but very cool in a minimalist, Scandinavian fashion like a hipster coffee shop – which, by day at least, is what it is; in the evening, candles are lit and beer pours from six draught lines. Initially bypassing these, I get stuck into the menu of bottles and cans, starting with Zapaburu from Basque brewery Laugar. Billed a hazy IPA but not especially murky, it has a sticky tropical mandarin edge, balanced with a touch of dankness. Dumbstruck from Jakobsland, a little further afield in Santiago de Compostela, is an ode to Citra hops, bursting with juicy lychee.

Of the draught beers, I plump for the local option -  Basqueland’s Brut Reynolds. Obviously enough, it’s brut IPA, a zeitgeist style at the moment and one I happen to be keen on. Like the best examples, this has a real precision and clarity of flavour, boosted by a very dry and bitter finish. I struggle all the way through the glass to put my finger on the dominant flavour – my best attempt is citrus zest and cannabis, with an earthy pine sap quality. On the way home, in a misplaced effort at sophistication, I stop at a cocktail bar and order almost blindly from a menu written in Spanish. I curse my monoglottism when a mango smoothie-style drink arrives in a milk bottle with a striped paper straw. I mention it because it was accompanied by a sprig of fresh oregano; chew on a leaf and sip the mango puree and the flavour sensation uncannily recalls the IPA from earlier in the evening.

The principal rationale for choosing Bilbao as a destination was the Guggenheim museum, somewhere I definitely did not appreciate on my previous visit as a teenager. It’s sensational, obviously, but a lengthy wander through its galleries builds up a significant hunger and thirst; Basquery is the answer. Though listed on Ratebeer and other sites as a brewpub, it looks to me more like a full-size production brewery with a deli, bakery and restaurant attached. The staff, initially bamboozled by my presence (I think I was maybe slightly early for full lunch service and this was the source of confusion, but I can’t be sure) valiantly overcome a significant language barrier to sort me out with a nice lunch and some impressive beers.

Itsasbeer is a saison incorporating grape must from a local winemaker specialising in the beautifully dry and acidic Basque white, txaokoli.  I’ll admit to being a sucker for almost any beer that straddles the boundary between grape and grain, but there’s something particularly wonderful about the crisp, tannic quality of white grapes in a saison; a gently floral air rounds it out and a dry, peppery finish almost demands another swig. Hitman, an IPA, is less distinctive, but very good, recalling that same mango/oregano interplay I’d found over at Bihotz the previous evening.

An audible buzz of conversation hit me from halfway down the street as I approached Singular. The place is bustling, seemingly fulfilling an important community function as a place for locals to meet for beer and pinxtos. The tap list is short but well curated and boosted by a decent selection of bottles and cans. I choose another from Basqueland, Aupa, and settle down with my book. I’m distracted first by the beer, which has an austere blood orange bitterness about it and a remarkable cleanliness. Then there’s the general ambience of the place, the people-watching potential, and the delightful old beagle scampering about. Before long I’ve put the book down, deciding I need no further stimulation than the beer in my glass and the ambience of the room.

A can of Salda Badago from the unfortunately-named Gross brewery in San Sebastien follows. The flavour is oddly nostalgic – it tastes exactly like Barratt’s Fruit Salad chews. The key elements here are pineapple and vanilla, but there’s a more grown-up edge of sharp tropical fruit and a notable bitterness in the finish. To finish, a small glass of Aupa Tovarisch, from the aforementioned Laugar (‘aupa’, by the way, is apparently a Basque expression meaning something analogous to ‘cheers’). This is a complex imperial stout that I initially find hard work, such is its intensity – my notes read “I will probably feel very pissed by the time I’ve finished this (very small) glass.” A rounded coffee depth of flavour props up notes of maple syrup, orange oil and gingerbread, finishing on a port wine tang. After a good 45 minutes of slow sipping, I decide its excellent and leave before I can be tempted by another.

Penguin Bar has a somewhat familiar feel; with a minimal, faintly industrial vibe and 16-strong tap list chalked on the walk, it's in the mould of craft beer bars in major cities the world over. Personally, I don’t hold that against the place; it's atmospheric with a young, hip crowd amongst whom I obviously feel right at home. There are several house beers, and its not easy to ascertain who brews these – some sources suggest it’s Txorierri Garagardoak, based just outside the city in Sondika. APA Blonde eases me in, and it’s a solid West Coast pale ale with a resinous, piney quality rounded out by some stone fruit.

To follow, I catch up with a couple of Barcelona breweries. I’m excited to reacquaint myself with Appasionada from Barcelona’s Edge, but I'm let down as its vibrant passion fruit aroma is muddied with buttery diacetyl. Beanz, a double IPA brewed in collaboration between Garage Brewing and Ireland’s Whiplash, is straight-up bizarre. I’m taken aback by its distinctly Middle Eastern vibe, which primarily recalls mint tea but with a musty quality redolent of saffron. Tropical fruit lurks underneath, sure, but I’m astonished to look it up and find that it doesn’t contain any kind of wacky adjunct ingredient. Perhaps this is what happens to New England IPAs when the savoury, caraway-type flavours almost completely take over? It’s interesting to begin with, but soon becomes difficult to drink.

Barcelona might be the more obviously fruitful location for beer, but on this evening in Penguin Bar, the Basque country easily has the edge. I’m aware that I end almost every travel post on this blog by saying something along the lines of ‘city X might not be an obvious beer location, but if you’re going anyway, there’s good stuff to be found.” Having spotted this trend, I should now resist it, but the truth is it applies perfectly to Bilbao. The dedicated ticker, such as myself, will gain satisfaction from the fact that the city’s beer locations can all be visited over the course of a weekend. There may be a couple of duds along the way – the worst Spanish beers can be really bad in my experience - but that’s tolerable. And at the very worst, I can heartily recommend sitting with a one-Euro tin of Mahou on the edge of the Nervión river in the sun.

Tuesday, 9 October 2018

Drinking in Vilnius, pt.3 - Lithuania's craft capital

Catch up on my Lithuanian adventure in part one here and part two here.

The concept of 'craft beer' only really makes sense in a particular context. A beer like Sierra Nevada Pale Ale emerged in a marketplace almost entirely dominated by mass-produced lager; the craft beer ideology, which values independence, traditional methods and bold flavour, defined itself against that dominance.

How, then, do we understand this imported American term when applied countries with rich traditions of independent and flavoursome beer? That binary opposition - craft vs mass produced - is complicated when there is a tradition, like cask beer in the UK, that is independent and flavoursome, and yet doesn't sit entirely comfortably within widespread understandings of craft beer. And craft beer is also not necessarily tied to a place - you can travel for thousands of miles in search of local brews, and find IPAs pretty similar to those you enjoy at home.

As this article for October suggests - farmhouse beer in Lithuania is in a precarious position, some of its brightest stars facing the possibility of extinction. It would be a terrible shame to lose these unique brews and find them all replaced by double IPAs. For the time being, though, there is welcome variety on offer in Vilnius. Much as I enjoyed the esoteric traditional beers, I wouldn't want to drink them all the time. The obligatory trendy craft beer bars showcase a modern-minded brewing scene in fine fettle, and in some venues American-style craft and farmhouse styles rub shoulders.

Pluck a bottle of Genys' Tamsus Miškas from the fridges at Bambalyne and you might expect one of the distinctively Lithuanian dark beer labelled as tamsusis. What you actually get is a chocolate porter. And a very good one, too – sweet and creamy with chocolatey decadence, but with a hint of sharp dried fruit, coffee roast and earthy nuts to add complexity. Dark Forest is, I think, the barrel-aged incarnation of the same beer, and has many of the same qualities alongside a sizeable dose of vanilla and a very subtle bourbon aftertaste. I’ve plenty of time for strong, assertive barrel-aged beers, but the strength of this particular one is its subtlety. 

What’s in a name? The moniker Nisha Craft Capital is a statement of intent; their anniversary T-shirt that reads “it’s been 2 years since the day that Vilnius was introduced to beer” even more so. I’m happy to dismissively roll my eyes at that notion – others might be less generous. Obviously enough, there are none of your rustic kaimiškas here. Lithuanian brewers are well represented, however, but working with international styles. You don’t need to travel to Lithuania to drink a Mango Milkshake IPA, for instance, though I was especially taken with the version from Apynys. I ordered it for some silly fun, but what I got was a sophisticated take on the New England IPA – not overly sweet, and using mango almost as seasoning to boost the naturally juicy hop profile rather than as an overbearing adjunct. A grainy, lager-like note in the finish might placate those who complain that modern IPAs “don’t taste like beer.”

A less convincing take on the NEIPA is Blacklights Multijuice. It opens with a sharp tropical aroma, and initially tastes soapy, floral and waxy with a big lemon zest dimension. Some sticky passion fruit emerges eventually, but that’s the only concession to the expected fruit salad effect you’d expect from the style. The good news is that it is, in all other respects, a very good beer; subtle and sessionable with bright flavours that complimented a summery evening beautifully.

I mentioned Dundulis in my previous post, noting that whilst they’re primarily concerned with modern craft styles, they make the occasional nod to tradition. Their IPA, Humulupu, was Lithuania’s first, and it’s pretty good, though already somewhat dated with caramel malt and English-style earthy, spicy hops, finishing on a notably bitter piney note. Their beers are easily found in Vilnius, including at several branches of their own Špunka bars. I visisted Etmonų Špunka, seemingly a popular spot for attractive young people and absolutely heaving. Here I drank Gutstoutas, a sweet oatmeal stout with a tobacco-like hop profile and chocolatey depth of malt flavour. Sadly it’s also thin where it should be rich and creamy, with a touch too much buttery diacetyl and some off-putting acidity. I’d highly recommend you swing by for the ambience, and probably best stick to the IPA when you do.

Just around the corner is Prohibicija, situated off a buzzing communal courtyard amongst a number of other bars and food joints. If you want a break from oddball Lithuanian styles but still want to drink local, a visit here should be your priority. The aforementioned Apynys teamed up with Russia’s Courage and Midnight Project from Belarus for 3 in 1 IPA, and it’s another clean and accomplished effort. Though crystal clear, it has much of the saturated stone fruit character you’d expect from a much hazier beer, but is much more refreshing and less intense.

Also skirting the NEIPA fruit bowl is Marakešas from Kuro Aparatūra, nominally a ‘hopfenweiss’ with the emphasis very much on the hop rather than the weiss. Alongside the tropical fruit there’s an edge of gooseberry which just verges on tartness and freshening the whole thing up like a squirt of lime on a wedge of ripe mango and finishing on a gorgeous zingy, sherbet-like note. NemieGOSEPareiGOSE, from the same brewery, was similarly impressive. Clean and sharp with a tart green apple quality, it also has a notable coriander component which gels very nicely with some pear-like esters, finishing with a perfumed, rosewater taste.

I feel no shame in admitting that after just a few days of oddball farmhouse beer, the occasional IPA really hit the spot. But I'd never take the latter at the expense of the former; after all, hopfenweisse and gose are no reason to travel to Vilnius - raw ale and keptinis are.

Thursday, 13 September 2018

Drinking in Vilnius, pt. 2: the Lithuanian national character

Part 1 of my Lithuanian adventure can be found here, and part 3 is here.

The most obscure farmhouse beers initially attracted me to Vilnius but really, my goal was seeking out beers with a distinctively Lithuanian character regardless of the size of the brewery. It doesn’t take long to notice some common characteristics amongst Lithuanian beer and certain descriptors – rustic, barnyard, nutty, straw-like, etc. – are bound to recur throughout this post, which covers a variety of beers that don’t necessarily all come from tiny microbreweries, but do all offer a flavour of Lithuania.

Take Kanapių from Taruškų, a modest regional rather than a tiny one-brewer operation. They’re known for their Kanapinis range, one of which I have tasted before and enjoyed. However I was most intrigued by Kanapių, which boasts the interesting gimmick of being brewed with toasted hemp seeds, and quickly found it on tap in Šnekutis Mikalojaus. It smells a lot like toasted seeds, and the nutty, earthy quality in the aroma quickly registers in the taste, too. Its full bodied and sweet, almost like unfermented wort, but also deeply savoury, earthy and herbal, with lots of bread crust, mint and cereals. Wonderfully complex, downright weird, very tasty.

Leave the old town and head for the river which separates Vilnius’ centre from the slick, shiny financial district and you’ll find Alaus Namai. This unpretentious basement pub has an impressive beer list, including examples from some of the small traditional brewers. Most excitingly to me was Kaimiškas, a keptinis beer brewed by Ramūno Čižo. This old Lithuanian tradition involves baking the mash in an oven before fermentation. Surprisingly dispensed from a cask via a beer engine and happily served in a branded clay mug, it had a strong aroma of overripe fruit, somewhat like a Belgian dubbel. A sharp, fruity, plum-like flavour struck me first, then medicinal sarsaparilla and liquorice. As I grew used to it, I began to notice parallels to a German dunkelweiss, the caramelised grain flavours gelling with banana and rhubarb. The complexity far outstrips even the best dunkelweiss though, and further surprises kept coming the more I slugged – smoke, rye bread, honey – and the bitterness seemed to build and build. Exactly the sort of delicious oddball I came to Vilnius for.

Beer nerds who want to find out more about diacetyl can do so using an off-flavours kit, adding a drop of this much-maligned chemical compound to an otherwise neutral beer in order to study it and better spot it out in the wild. If you want to really revel in diacetyl though, I’d recommend a trip to Lithuania, where a great number of beers are positively riddled with it. You could start with Davra’s Daujotu, also available at Alaus Namai. As I drank this beer, I pondered the nostalgic memory it stirred in me; something about it strongly reminded me of sweets I’d eaten as a child. At first I thought it might be ice cream flavoured Chewits but, although there is a strong vanilla component to its flavour, that wasn’t quite right. Eventually it hit me – the popcorn flavoured sweet you find in a packet of Jelly Belly jelly beans. Diacetyl is often described as something like buttery or butterscotch-coated popcorn, so it makes sense.

Daujotu might surprise you because, a) it tastes of almost nothing but diacetyl, a flavour that most beer geeks agree is generally undesirable and a tell-tale sign of sloppy brewing, and yet, b) it’s extremely drinkable. Leave your preconceptions of what flavours do and don’t belong in a beer back home if you hope to enjoy drinking in Vilnius.

The butterscotch is dialled down a little in Varniuku, Davra's tamsusis. This term denotes a dark beer, though this might turn out to be a straightforward porter rather than an indigenous Lithuanian style. Varniuku belongs firmly in the latter category, though it has plenty in common with Czech and German dark lagers - milk chocolate, caramel and cola, with the diacetyl singing harmoniously with bready roasted grain.

In the gorgeous cellar bar and bottle shop Bambalyne, I was recommended Cyrulis from Dundulis. Influenced by Czech pilsners, where diacetyl is also not uncommon in smaller doses, the beer nevertheless speaks with a tell-tale Lithuanian accent as suggestions of hay and walnuts emerge.This approach is indicative of Dundulis’ wider ethos; though dealing principally in modern styles, they also respect tradition. A commendable ambition, but I had mixed experiences with the beers, and the more esoteric styles were to my mind less successful.

Also at Bambalyne was Syrne, brewed with peas in the grist in a practice popularised by grain shortages in the Soviet era. It’s an interesting concept but unfortunately a minor disaster of a beer. (I realise I have just recently written that a shift of perspective around off-flavours is required to understand Lithuanian beer, but there are limits.) Smelling fairly strongly of manure, it’s flawed with smoky notes that recall at best Islay whisky, but more accurately TCP, and finishes on an unpleasant sour note that suggests it’s infected. Their Keptinis is better, with some vibrant apple and plum notes and a porter-like caramelised malt character, though it’s still distractingly acidic. There’ll be more on Dundulis’ more ‘craft’ offerings next time, but sadly their nods to tradition, however admirable, aren’t yielding delicious results.

A more refined beer with peas is Širvenos from regional brewer Biržų. A fairly conventional lager in style, it’s hard to tell whether the peas make any difference to the flavour or whether this is just the power of suggestion. It’s a touch sweeter than your average lager, with lots of honey eventually giving way to tangy honeycomb and crisp malt. Unlike some I tasted in Vilnus, this is not a beer that shocks and puzzles, but it has a certain something.

For another twist on lager, I’d pass on a tip from the barman at Šnekutis Stepono and recommend Armeniukas’s Jurgenborg. I suspect the malt in this beer might be Lithuanian, as it shares a slightly rough, dusty, rustic quality with many of the other beers mentioned in this post (and some diacetyl, though at this point that should go without saying). The focus, though, is on hops – seemingly noble hops, though they come off dank and citrusy rather than grassy and herbal. As it warms, estery weissbier-like notes take over, with waves of banana and pear. Whilst it’s not the most distinctively Lithuanian beer, it is nevertheless not quite like anything I’ve tasted elsewhere and I absolutely loved it.

As with many European beer cultures, though, there are plenty of brewers more interested in foreign influences than local tastes. In my final digest from Vilnius, we’ll look at some venues who proudly advertise something called ‘craft beer’.

Thursday, 6 September 2018

Drinking in Vilnius, pt.1 : Jovarų Alus

Photo by Lars Marius Garshol

Whenever I think about Lithuanian beer – which has been, over the past few years, fairly frequently – a very specific image is summoned in my mind. The image is of a brown PET bottle, the label of which depicts a grimacing man with a tangled grey beard, a battered straw hat on his head. The picture is one posted by Lars Marius Garshol, chronicler of obscure and fascinating farmhouse beer traditions, on his wonderful blog.

This photo, and Lars’ tales of Lithuania’s beer culture in general, fascinated me. The branding looked so weird, and the descriptions of the beer were even weirder. The country has a beer culture that is distinctly its own, with brewing practices and flavours that might seem pretty wacky to outsiders. And whilst I’ve been able to sample a couple of industrially-produced Lithuanian brews, the really interesting stuff comes from small farmhouse breweries. At the least, you’ll need to take a trip to the capital, Vilnius, to taste it, if not to the rural breweries themselves. Not willing to subject my family to the latter, this summer I finally took the trip to Vilnius.

On arriving, I wanted to track down the beer from the picture as my first taste of Lithuanian farmhouse beer. Happily, this was easily achieved, as it’s the house beer at a small chain of Vilnius bars called Šnekutis. The portrait on the label of the aforementioned bottle is of the eccentric owner, and you’ll recognise his likeness in painted portraits, 2018 calendars and even glazed ceramic figurines dotted around the bars.  The beer is brewed by Jovarų Alus, whose 70-year-old brewer is known as ‘the queen of Lithuanian brewing’ and uses a yeast strain her grandfather reportedly found in a forest. When I first stumbled across Lars’ blog, that story alone had me determined to taste the beer.

You might find this brew sold under the name Jovarų Šnekutis, though it is available in other places labelled simply as Jovarų Alus. In a very unusual and very old Lithuanian tradition, this is a ‘raw ale’, meaning that the wort is not boiled. One consequence of this practice is that lots of protein from the malt remains in the beer, and one of its most striking features is a mouthfeel so full you feel you could almost chew it. Another is that the beer has a short shelf life and can be a little unstable. This may explain why two glasses I tasted, both on the same day across two different branches of Šnekutis, tasted remarkably different.

The first of these was at Šnekutis Mikalojaus, a large and studenty place sporting large TV screens and table football as well as traditional wooden knick-knacks and hearty Lithuanian grub – a plate of crunchy fried rye bread with garlic known as kepta duona is the best bar snack I’ve ever tasted. Here, the Jovarų tasted a little sharp, with some lemony acidity, and ever-so-slightly metallic. The finish was flinty and exceedingly dry. I found it very drinkable and not uninteresting, but it didn’t seem as distinct as I’d hoped, recalling a very rustic saison at a stretch.

Just outside Vilnius’ beautiful medieval old town is the first of the chain’s bars, Šnekutis Stepono. Here the crowd is perhaps a little older, and included a few families finishing up traditional meals. Despite carefully combing Lars’ indispensable e-book, Lithuanian Beer: A rough guide for recommendations, I found myself stumped at the bar, unable to recall the names of the beers I’d read about and a little shy about asking for recommendations. The answer was to order a Jovarų to ease me in whilst I tried to make a little more sense of what was on offer.

Whilst recognisably the same beer I’d tasted earlier in the day, I was taken aback at the contrast. That hint of acidity was completely absent, and the beer came across much sweeter, with hints of vanilla. Diacetyl, a feature of traditional Lithuanian beer rather than an off-flavour, was prominent, along with some nutty notes. The finish was just as gloriously dry.

This glass gave me much more of what I’d hoped for from Lithuanian beer. It was wonderfully complex, and lay outside of any recognised beer style I could care to mention. I took a moment to reflect on how I was making one of my most desired beery ticks, drinking farmhouse beer in Vilnius, and suddenly finding the feeling of being just slightly out of my depth invigorating.

An auspicious start, then, to a week’s worth of adventure. During this time I tasted a wide variety of beer, from the very niche-est, traditional styles to the very juiciest mango-infused IPAs. Further thoughts on my experiences will follow soon.

See here for part 2