The Amazing, Quirky Beers of Lithuania
A few years ago, the Norwegian blogger Lars Marius Garshol began revealing to English-speakers one of the most unusual beer cultures in the world. He discovered an intact farmhouse brewing tradition here, and slowly unveiled it farm by farm. In his travels, he described unique techniques and styles of beer, laying out, like a cartographer, a map of this amazing world. His interest in these ancient brewing traditions led him to discover them elsewhere in the Baltics and Scandinavia, and many of the breweries he detailed are incredibly interesting. In the Spring, Brewers Publication will release his extensive study, which will certainly be a must-read for any serious beer fan interested in these traditions.
Thanks to Lars’ sleuthing, we know a number of regions are home to these largely noncommercial enterprises. Lithuania, however, is different. It’s not a place where all the beer is fairly typical (standard mass market lagers plus American-style craft) and then there’s a little remnants of farmhouse brewing off in the country. In Lithuania, continuity connects the farmhouse tradition to commercial brewing. This is something I didn’t appreciate until I tasted the beer. There is a Lithuanian profile I found in everything but the most industrial beer (which I didn’t try). The farmhouse influence percolates upward, into small commercial breweries, newer craft breweries, and even regional breweries ostensibly making lagers. It’s possible to talk about “Lithuanian beer” as a whole, where the characteristics that define the farmhouse beers are present to a certain extent in commercial beer.
We’ll come to those characteristics in a moment, but there’s a more fundamental question to address: why has Lithuania preserved this tradition and retained a sense of place when so few other European countries did?
An Unusual Country
Beer is a manifestation of the culture that created it, so if we peek back into Lithuania’s history, might we see the beginnings of an answer to this question? Indeed we can. I had the good fortune to spend some time with an active member of the local beer scene, Martynas Savickis, and we found our conversation slipping from the beer to Lithuania itself—it’s language, history, and some of the curious facets of its culture. Lithuania is a small country with a population of just 3 million, and the people here are keenly aware of their history. That knowledge has been the way they’ve preserved their culture—and beer—over the centuries.
Lithuania is unusual in several ways. The language is not Slavic and is closely related only to Latvian (Estonian is in the Finnish family). Remarkably, it only existed as a spoken language until a written form emerged sometime after the 12th century—and the oldest text is only 500 years old. The Lithuanians were also among the last Europeans to be Christianized, practicing their traditional faith until a transition began around 1400.
The history thereafter was unusual as well. One of the most formative periods was from 1569-1791, when the country formed a commonwealth with Poland. This was one of the first challenges to Lithuanian culture, as a process of “Polonization” gradually transformed the nobility. It was also the first period in which Lithuanian took a backseat—at least among the ruling class—to another language. But that would only be the first time. Following the Polish commonwealth, Lithuania fell under Tsarist control.
In the 19th century, Lithuanians staged uprisings against their outside rulers, but got repression and the first attempted Russification of their culture and language instead. In response, Lithuanians went underground, secretly educating children at home and trading smuggling books. Scholars led the charge for a national revival, which would eventually lead to (a brief) independence after WWI. Of course, following WWII, Lithuania became a state in the USSR, where the Russification was far more aggressive.
There’s a lot to unpack here, and it helps explain how a tiny country could become the vehicle for such cultural continuity. Why do the Lithuanians and not the Latvians have such a robust and intact brewing tradition, for example? Their paths diverged early on; Latvia had been conquered and Christianized by German crusaders in the 12th century and Riga became a major port and part of the Hanseatic League. It would later become part of the Swedish empire, and then part of the Russian empire. But unlike Lithuania, which remained agricultural, Latvia industrialized, which made it a much juicier focal point for Soviets in the 20th century. Latvia also spent most of its history under the control of foreigners and its lands were often divided.
Under the Soviets, Latvia was decimated. Hundreds of thousands fled at the end of the war, and the Soviets sent tens of thousands more to the gulags. The Soviets also relocated many Russians to Latvia, dropping its native-born population by a third.
The Soviets were brutal to the first generation of Lithuanians, as, resettling an estimated 5% in Siberia or sending them to the gulags. These times were so dark children in Martynas’s generation didn’t hear about them because “the walls have ears.” In contrast with Latvia, however, the Lithuanians fought, setting up a resistance in the forests. Because it was just an agricultural country, the Soviets largely abandoned it to the local Communist party. Although children raised in Lithuania in this era learned Russian, they received a good sense of their own culture and history. Martynas was fourteen when the empire fell, and he described it in fairly positive terms—and he is of course fluent in Russian.
You can see how this may have affected this small, stubborn country. Practicing a traditional craft became an act of nationalism. To this day, many Lithuanians are engaged in preserving their cultural history. Beyond beer, one visible artifact is traditional cuisine, available everywhere. In many European countries, traditional dining seems fusty and nostalgic—worth preserving, but not something to eat every day. Not so in Lithuania, where a plate of sausage and potato pancakes are available everywhere. Local crafts, revivalist fairs, a growing interest in pre-Christian mythology—it permeates society.
And you can of course see it in the beer as well.
In a country in which the written record extends back only 500 years, its difficult to say how long farmers have been making beer, or how it may have evolved. What we can say is that the more traditional methods are weird.
If you want to go deep, you can read about these processes at Lars’ blog; he visited breweries and took great photos over the course of years. (Try this post on Lithanian beer generally, keptinis, and raw ale—or read his short, free book.) But briefly, let me mention just a few. One is the practice of mashing the grain, then pulling the wet malt from the mash, putting it in pans, and baking it. The “bread” is then broken up and returned to the mash—now caramelized and darkened—flavors that go into the beer. Another technique is fermenting the beer after mashing—without boiling it. Brewers want some bitterness in the beer, though, so they make a hop tea which they add to the wort. Finally, there’s a “stone beer” tradition, but it’s not like Germany’s. In these beers, a few stones are heated and added to the mash (or sometimes the boil?). They certainly help raise the temperature, but they don’t taste volcanic in the way of beer that is boiled entirely via hot stones. They do caramelize the wort a bit and add a hint of flavor, and possibly add some body. They’re used almost like an ingredient to flavor the beer.
I tried beers made in each of these ways (I believe the techniques can be mixed and matched, as well). They taste unusual, but not bizarre. Because the techniques usually don’t involve wild inoculation, heavy yeast character is not the main driver of flavor in Lithuanian farmhouse beers (with a caveat). Instead, it’s those malts that come into play. Although the farmhouse brewers don’t malt their own barley, they and most of the small breweries use local malts, which have their own particular flavors. The character of the pale malts is characterized by cracker or flatbread. It’s a distinctive flavor that can be identified after a few pints. Dark malts are also unusual; they’re not roasty. They can have notes of toffee, red fruit, or chocolate, but they’re sweet rather than acrid.
Where the yeast does play a role is in creating familiar flavors of isoamyl acetate (the banana ester weizen yeasts produce) and/or diacetyl. They track as a sweet, full quality, and are present in low amounts. Sometimes they’re both in a beer, which makes them hard to distinguish. As I would learn later, these flavors are clearly intentional. Perhaps farmhouse breweries have less control over their yeasts, but these flavors are found so broadly across styles that it can’t be accidental—and most of those beers are made on modern systems. These flavors are used to accent the malts, which can turn nutty or bready under their influence. It’s unusual, but I found it quite welcome.
Kaimiškas: Any farmhouse beer. This does not refer to beer style, but the kind of brewery that makes the beer.
Keptinis: The type of farmhouse ale where the mash is baked in pans.
Raw ale: There’s no term for this that I know of, but it refers to unboiled wort with added hop tea.
Stone beer: Made with heated stones to create a layer of caramelized flavor. There appear to be multiple words for stone, and I don’t know if there’s a standard term for this process.
Šviesusis: Any pale beer.
Tamsusis: Any dark beer.
Kvietinis: Wheat beer.
Gira: A type of low- or non-alcoholic drink made from rye bread like kvass. It’s usually sweetened. Very common and often made (nontraditionally) by large producers.
One of the most illuminating moments in my Lithuanian journey came right at the end. I’d managed to sample a number of the exotic and rare beers available in Vilnius. I was in my hotel room with a bottle of Vilniaus unfiltered pale lager (šviesusis nefiltruotas). Nothing about this beer suggests it would have anything in common with the farmhouse ales. It comes from a regional producer, it’s made on modern equipment, and it’s a lager. And yet!
The malts were the most cracker-like of any I tasted, yet they were soft like Bavarian malts. The characteristic dollop of sweetness was there—diacetyl, but in low enough amounts it was more a component of mouthfeel and sweetness than an overt butter flavor. It was lightly fruity and not obviously a lager. But there, in a supposed pale lager, were the qualities I’d found in ales made in farmhouses.
Lithuanian beer has a soft, sweetish palate accented by diacetyl or banana (or both), cracker-like or berry-sweet malts, nothing in the way of hop character, modest strength, and an impression of warmth—these things characterize most of the beer, from the rustic styles to bottle lager. (There are American-style craft breweries making IPAs, but they are not a big part of the scene and those breweries also make Lithuanian styles.)
Another curious quirk. Most of the pubs I visited had a Czech-style side-tap, a little valve that let the publican adjust the carbonation level. Where they existed, publicans worked them hard to produce beer as flat as possible, adjusting even as they poured. It often meant filling a glass up with foam and then getting a second glass for the drinker. The beer would drizzle out in a thin stream, and the whole process might take a couple minutes. The heads were thick and creamy, but the beer even less lively than a pint of cask bitter—all of which further enhances the native qualities of the beer. The picture above is from my very first stop, and I saw this again and again.
At the outset of this post, I used the word “discover” to describe these beers. Obviously, the Lithuanians knew about the tradition—“discovery” here just refers to English-speakers. But it is still remarkable that it went unnoticed by us this long. It is one of the most interesting beer countries, and we in the English-speaking world were ignorant of it through decades of interest in European traditions.
Vilnius is at least 4,000 miles from America (further I’d you live in Far Oregon) and it’s not particularly close to other beery destinations in Europe. I would nevertheless highly encourage you to visit if at all possible. This is a truly unique city, and one of the few places you can find beer so tied to the region. It’s also not possible to get any sense of these beers without visiting—they’re not exported and wouldn’t survive well if they were. Beyond beer, the town of Vilnius is a lovely, compact little place with lots of old-world charm, so it makes a nice vacation spot as well.
There have been innumerable “best beer city” listicles over the years, and I don’t ever recall seeing Vilnius on them. That’s because it is remote and still largely unknown. I hope all you beer fans will help change that in the future.