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

1 comment:

  1. The closest parallel to Lars' writing up of the beer culture of the Baltic states is probably Michael Jackson's reporting of Belgian beer culture in the 1970s. Glad to see you're getting about.