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