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’.


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