It was a stroke of luck. I’d been a beer enthusiast for almost a decade, travelling all over the world to try different beers. I’d taught myself how to write proper beer reviews describing aroma, flavour and mouthfeel. I’d taken a beer judging exam, and learned the basics of the theory of brewing and tasting. But of late I had begun to grow a little bored. There didn’t seem to be much more to discover.
Little did I know.
For Christmas 2009, my wife gave me a Danish book on beer. One chapter in particular struck me: the author travelled to a Lithuanian village to brew with a local home brewer. This brewer, it turned out, grew his own barley, then malted it himself. The hops came from his own garden. He even had his own yeast, stored in a jar in the well, and reused since time immemorial. Now what was this? It sounded utterly unlike any beer I’d ever heard of.
Then, in February 2010, I found myself at a loose end one weekend, and thought of going somewhere to try new beers. With the book fresh in my mind, I figured maybe Vilnius might be interesting. I took a look on the web, and found that several bars in Vilnius were selling strange-sounding beers. The reviewers who had tasted them sounded equal parts puzzled and fascinated. Flight tickets and hotel turned out to be very inexpensive, which quickly settled the issue.
In Vilnius I sought out the nearest bar on my list: Bambalynė. It was a lovely cellar bar underneath the Old Town, with a vaulted brick ceiling, and elegant antique furniture. In a separate room stood a row of refrigerators with row upon row upon row of beers I had never heard of, all with confusing names. I turned to the girl behind the counter and asked her for a recommendation. “I usually recommend this one,” she said, striding over to one of the fridges, and picking out a bottle.
“Salaus alus,” says the label, which tells me precisely nothing. I buy it, sit down at one of the tables, and pour myself a glass. Big offwhite head, hazy deep yellow body. So far, so unremarkable. Then I lift the glass, swirl it around, and stick my nose into it, inhaling deeply. The aroma is unusually strong and complex: fruity, earthy, and floral, with notes of honey and perhaps flour. Usually I can tell what style a beer is (porter, IPA, kölsch, gose, whatever) after just a quick sniff. In this case, however, I draw a blank. I have no idea what this is.
So I taste it. The flavour is huge: dry, peppery, and with an intense flavour of straw, again with those herbal floral elements. A long, bitter straw finish. Perhaps the biggest surprise is how vivid the flavour is. It’s as if someone left a big bale of straw in the sun all day, then dropped me from a crane face first into it. And it’s like nothing I’ve ever tasted or heard of. Clearly, I need to learn more.
I try the girl behind the counter. “How do they get this flavour?” I ask. “Is it the yeast, or maybe the hops?” She looks at me for a moment, then says “what is hops?” With a sinking feeling I try a few more questions, but it’s clear that she has absolutely no idea how beer is made.
There are many, many more beers in the fridges, so I start trying them out. It turns out to be a mixed lot. Some are fairly ordinary pale lagers. Some appear to be lagers, but are very unusual. I like them, though. Then there is a whole range of beers which I have no idea about, some with very strange designs on the labels. Some of the labels describe very odd ingredients: red clover, peas, raspberry stems, toasted hemp seeds, etc. I’d never heard of anyone using these ingredients before.
I visit another bar called Šnekutis. It’s at the south end of the Old Town and seems like a fairly ordinary corner bar – except for the huge moustache the owner sports. And the beer, which again is out of this world. The house beer, Jovarų Alus, is even more unusual than the first beer. Extremely complex, with a clear flavour of walnut oil, fruit, and herbs. Again, I couldn’t even begin to place it in any taxonomy of beer. The moustachioed owner turns out to have no English.
And so it goes. Eventually, I fly home, convinced that I’ve discovered a major secret unknown to the rest of the beer world. Unfortunately, at this point I still don’t know what the secret is. Cracking the code turned out to take four years, involving several more trips to Vilnius, some tours of the countryside to visit breweries, and long conversations with local beer enthusiasts. Eventually, I managed to get hold of some Lithuanian books and articles, and had them translated to English so I could read them. The picture that emerged from all this was quite surprising.
Historically, in most of northern Europe, farmers would make their own beer. Farmers were largely outside the money economy until quite recently, because they made almost everything they needed themselves, and so had little need for money. They grew grain, which they malted themselves. The hops they grew themselves, or picked wild. Yeast was something everyone had, dried from the last batch of beer on a piece of cloth or a ring of straw. So for a very long time, farmers made their own beer, just like they would make their own bread, their own clothes, their own cheese, and so on.
This tradition of brewing beer gradually died out most places; either because farmers found it easier to simply buy the beer than to go through all the work of picking and drying hops, malting the grain (which takes over a week), brewing and so on, or because in many regions the aristocracy or the government used access to alcohol as a form of taxation. In Prussia, for example, the peasants were forbidden to brew beer, and were required to instead buy it from the local landowners.
In Lithuania, however, brewing never died out. Northern Lithuania is rich farmland, so there was no lack of brewing ingredients, and many farmers were fiercely proud of their brewing tradition. When the Soviet occupation began, all commercial breweries were taken over by the state, and brewed six fixed recipes, rotating between the breweries. Since this was the classic Soviet planned economy, quotas were set for the amount of beer each brewery should produce, but there was little concern for quality.
So the home brewers had every reason to keep brewing. As they did. This was not merely tolerated by the local communist authorities, but brewers were even allowed to make and sell beer for weddings and other major celebrations. Even gatherings of communist party chiefs might order local homebrew, since it was far superior to the industrial beer. And then, eventually, Lithuania restored its independence and the Soviet Union fell apart. Anyone could now legally start a business, and many of the home brewers who had already been running a sort of semi-legal business immediately set up commercial breweries. I have not been able to find precise figures, but by 1992, Lithuania had somewhere between 200 and 400 breweries. Most of these were tiny farmhouse breweries, still brewing with wooden equipment, using locally made ingredients.
Industrial brewers go to brewing school and learn brewing methods refined by centuries of scientific research into enzymes, yeast, sugar types, etc., etc. While there is some variation, the brewing methods used in modern industrial lager brewing are remarkably uniform. And the same goes for the new wave of craft brewers, or microbrewers. The iconic craft brewery Brewdog, for example, recently released the recipes to all of their 215 beers. Every single one of those was brewed using the same brewing process.
The Lithuanian farmhouse brewers, however, have never been to brewing school, nor ever read a brewing manual. They brew as they learned from their parents, who again learned from their parents, and so on. This chain runs back to the beginning of written history, and beyond, so the origin is by now lost and forgotten. The brewing processes that these brewers use have been developed basically by trial and error over the centuries, and then passed on through the generations.
So it’s not just that these brewers use very odd ingredients. They also brew in ways that would never even occur to any modern brewer. This is why I was so confused and fascinated in my first meeting with Lithuanian beer. It really was a whole unique and different brewing tradition, developed by the Lithuanians themselves in relative isolation from the rest of the world.
There are other countries in Europe that have also preserved some bits and pieces of their brewing traditions, such as Norway, Sweden, Finland, Latvia, and Estonia, but Lithuania is unique in that so many traditional beers are sold commercially. To try farmhouse ale in Norway you have to travel out to a region where it’s brewed, then somehow find a home brewer, and persuade him to give you some beer for free. In Vilnius, you can walk into the right bar and order it. If you know how to tell which beers are which, that is. (To solve this problem I wrote a guidebook to Lithuanian beer.)
To really understand the beer, however, you have to travel to Aukštaitija (the highlands) in northern Lithuania, and meet the brewers. My guide took me to the small village of Jovarai, just outside of Pasvalys, turning off the main road into what looked like any other residential area in the region. He drove into a courtyard between two houses, and parked. The left house was the brewery, formerly a barn. On the right was the home of the brewer.
The brewer is Aldona Udrienė, known as “the queen of Lithuanian beer,” for her regal bearing and the excellence of her beer. She comes out of the house, and we sit down in her little tasting pavilion in the garden. She serves glasses of her beer, even better here, fresh from the brewery, and starts telling her story. She learned to brew from her father, and he in turn learned to brew from her grandfather.
Her father and grandfather would make their own malts, from local barley. It would be soaked in water for a few days, then taken up and covered with sacks to stay wet. The grain would sprout and turn hot to the touch. A couple of times a day it had to be stirred to sprout evenly. The green malts would then be rubbed between the hands to remove the rootlets and the little green shoots because these give the beer a bad flavour. Rubbing a hundred kilos or more of malts was of course a lot of work, but fairly easy, so it was work for the children. She started doing it when she was four years old, and she says she remembers her hands growing sweet and sticky from the malt sugars. Finally, the green malts would be spread out on the floor in the loft and dried there. Today, Udrienė buys the malts, because she’s brewing on a much larger scale now.
She takes us on a tour of the brewery. Originally, she started brewing with wooden equipment, which was what everyone used. Now she’s built a bigger brewery using stainless steel equipment from local dairies. The first thing we see is fermenting beer in big open tanks. The surface is covered in the normal foam, but above it stands huge transparent bubbles. I’ve never seen fermenting beer that looks like this before.
I ask Aldona about the yeast, and it turns out she doesn’t buy it from a lab, unlike all modern breweries and home brewers. The yeast she uses comes from her grandfather. She doesn’t know what type of yeast it is. All she knows is that she collects it when the beer has finished fermenting, then uses it to start the next brew fermenting. Her father did it the same way, and her grandfather before him. Where the yeast came from before then she doesn’t know. So that’s probably the cause of the extremely unusual flavour of her beer. I ask her and she confirms it. “Yes, yes, it’s mostly from the yeast”.
In the next room is the wood boiler that heats water for the brewing. So her brewery is still wood-fired! In the next room is the mash tun, and the room beyond has the maturation tanks. There’s also a loft where she stores the malts, but that’s the whole brewery. But what about the copper where the wort is boiled, I ask? It turns out the brewery doesn’t have one, because the wort is never boiled. This was common all over Lithuania in the past.
That’s quite shocking. Today, boiling the wort is so common that most modern brewing textbooks don’t even mention the possibility of just skipping this step. And for good reason. If bacteria get into the beer it will turn sour (or worse) quite soon, and become undrinkable. Boiling the wort sterilizes it, making the brewing process far safer. Boiling the hops also extracts bitter compounds (alpha acids) from the hops that provide further protection against bacteria. And it removes protein, making the beer more stable.
Closer study of these ancient brewing techniques has shown that this mash, which Udrienė does at temperatures above 70°C, effectively pasteurizes the beer. So the boiling isn’t really necessary. And keeping the protein in the beer fills it out, making her very dry beer feel sweeter and more rounded than it actually is. She even has a solution to the hop problem: she boils hops in water, producing what she calls “apyny arbata” (hop tea), which is then added to the beer. So the method works, even though it sounds bizarre to modern brewers.
And, of course, this is another reason why the beer tastes so different. During the boil, a number of chemical processes take place in the wort that change the flavour. Protein coagulates and drops out, S-methyl methionine decomposes into dimethyl sulfide, maillard reactions darken the beer, and so on and so forth. So raw ale, where the wort is never boiled, is surprisingly different from ordinary beer.
We go back to the pavilion, where Udrienė starts telling more stories about “senelis” (grandfather), her childhood, starting the brewery, and so on and so forth. I’m furiously scribbling down notes while the sun sets, and the sky darkens until I can barely see my notes. So Udrienė invites us into the house, where we carry on drinking her lovely, lovely beer, and scribbling increasingly illegible notes.
Eventually, the translator and I get up, swaying slightly, to take our leave, then stumble down a country road lined with trees on both sides, taking us to our motel in the centre of Pasvalys. Next morning I wake up with a pounding headache, and warm memories of the queen of Lithuanian beer.
Lars Marius Garshol is a software engineer living in Oslo, Norway. His hobby is researching farmhouse ale brewing, which has so far resulted in two books, and a number of posts on his blog.
Header image – Traditional Lithuanian brewing gear
All photos credit – Lars Marius Garshol
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