Monday, 3 August 2015

Two Lithuanian beers

Lars Marius Garshol, of Larsblog, is responsible for the most fascinating beer reading I've undertaken this year. In a series of blog posts and subsequent e-book, he has undertaken a thorough investigation of Lithuanian beer culture, travelling to Vilnius and beyond reporting his findings from tiny regional breweries and traditional beer bars. Due to my own ignorance (perhaps, even, the ignorance of Western Europe in general), Lithuania seems an impossibly obscure country, one I know next to nothing about. And yet it is home to a singular tradition of farmhouse brewing that owes little to the brewing cultures of the rest of Europe. Lars’ findings suggest that traditional Lithuanian brewing practices are not always as well preserved as we might like, but they still exist for the curious beer hunter to discover.

Enthralled though I was with this subject, I doubted I’d ever taste a traditional Lithuanian beer. Not many make their way to the UK and, even if they did, most authentic farmhouse beers travel very poorly. Even the journey to Vilnius can reportedly affect the quality of these brews, and they are best tasted at the breweries. I can only imagine my very patient girlfriend’s reaction if I were to suggest we take a tour of Lithuanian farmhouse breweries in search of unusual, challenging beers – let’s just say I won’t book the flights just yet.

Having a quick poke around Google after reading Lars’ e-book, I was surprised to find that Beers of Europe, my favoured mail-order beer retailer, stocks a handful of Lithuanian bottles. They were, of course, out of stock, and I had to imagine they were unlikely to come back in. Still, there’s an option to receive an email alert when products come back in stock. I took advantage of this and then completely forgot all about it, whilst still daydreaming about these mysterious brews from time to time. And then, one day, I received an email informing me that two of the more interesting beers were back in stock after all. Given Lars’ warnings about the vulnerability of these beers in transit, I lowered my expectations a little – this wouldn't be a totally authentic Lithuanian beer experience, but the closest I could get without travelling. And in any case, these appear to be more industrially produced beers rather than small-scale farmhouse operations.

Butautu Dvaro Alus Šviesus came first. The word ‘šviesus’ translates as ‘pale’ and, although the style isn't clearly defined, there are certain common characteristics, including a hazy appearance, a rustic, straw-like flavour and lots of diacetyl. Diacetyl, an off-characteristic in most beers which produces a slick, oily texture and buttery flavours, is reportedly a common characteristic in Lithuanian brewing, and considered a complement to the flavour of the malts rather than a brewing fault. Lars' e-book does warn that certain beers may use the word on their labels, but the contents of the bottle are closer to normal lager. I'm not sure where this would fall as I have nothing to compare it to - it pours clear and has a certain resemblance to lager, but possesses many Lithuanian peculiarities either way.

The aroma is vinous, but also a little earthy, something like oxidised white wine, and there are also a lot of honey and lager malts on the nose. What initially registers in terms of flavour is the sweetness - the reason this sticks out is that, as a general rule, Lithuanian beers lack hop bitterness due to the low yields of domestic hop varieties. Honey is a big flavour here, alongside synthetic vanilla and icing sugar. Diacetyl is certainly playing a large role, too , revealing itself in strong butterscotch notes. The dry, earthy, straw flavours that are often described as characteristic of Lithuanian beers are there in certain mouthfuls, and so is just the tiniest hint of vinegar. Carbonation – again, as it apparently the norm in Lithuania – is low, and the diacteyl contributes to a slick and oily body. If that sounds like a sloppily brewed mess, think again – oddly, it works, whilst the flavours are so unusual and so unlike other beers that I'm constantly drawn in for another inquisitive sip. 

The second beer is Kanapinis Alus Šviesus, brewed by Taruškų. Certain internet sources make reference to the use of hemp seeds in this beer but whilst there are beers in this range that use hemp, I don’t think this is actually one of them. It pours hazier than the Butautu example, with a fluffy white head which vanishes quickly. The initial flurry of carbonation also fades fast, and the beer ends up practically still, like a traditional German kellerbier. The aroma is dominated by honey, with caramel and something like buttery pasty in there. Again, my initial impression on taking a sip is of an unusual sweetness, with those honey notes continuing, although there is some sort of concession to bitterness here – not quite enough to balance that sweetness, but it’s there. The one predictable flavour is of standard lager malts, although these are mutated by a big dose of buttery diacetyl. There are also stewed apples, cereals and an ever-so-slight sour vinegar note far in the background, and it finishes dry and chalky in a way that’s reminiscent of sparkling mineral water. Lars’ e-book often talks about a nutty, oily flavour which is unique to Lithuanian beer – exactly what causes this is not yet known – and whilst I didn't get much of this in the Butautu beer, I can pick it up here – it’s something like peanuts, and the oiliness is only compounded by the slickness the diacetyl brings.

"The first thing you should do, before having your first sip of Lithuanian farmhouse ale is to reset your brain. The beer in front of you may look like a saison, or a zwickel, but it is in fact neither. It belongs to a completely separate beer tradition that has developed its own frame of reference, and you have to treat it as such. You should, in a sense, expect the unexpected."

The above is Lars' advice on how to approach Lithuanian beer for the first time, and they're wise words. The two that I've sampled here may be some of the tamer examples out there, and even these were plenty weird in comparison to what I'd normally drink. But beer is like that - imagine, for example, that you'd never encountered, or never heard of, the tradition of British cask ale. Your first pint might seem tepid and flat - but then, it's supposed to be that way, and the condition of the beer is the result of very deliberate and complex decisions on the part of the brewers and publicans. The same is true of these Lithuanian beers, however bizarre they seem at first. You can order them yourself from Beers of Europe here. They're also available in litre bottles, and would make great sharing beers.


  1. That's a good point: I should have mentioned in the book that you can get at least a couple of beers from Beers of Europe. And you're right that these are not farmhouse brewers, but they are at least interesting and different.

    The beer with hemp seeds is Taruškų Kanapinis Alus Su Kanapemis.

  2. Lars,
    Just back from 7 weeks in Lithuania as I have family from there. Tried the kana alus and it tasted very good for my taste. I unfortunately did not give it time to go flat which could be the brewers intent. After 3 fast beers the rest just go. Great trip and found an awesome place to stay off of Pilis Street for an amazing price.

  3. Very cool. I really hope to visit at least Vilnius one day.