13 October 2015

Down on the farm (ish)

In his Bumper Book of Lithuanian Beer, Lars Marius Garshol sets out a hierarchy of breweries, with the industrials at the bottom, then the regionals followed by the modern microbreweries. Above this tier are the traditional-style microbreweries -- the ones that have adopted and adapted the styles and techniques of Lithuanian farmhouse brewing on a larger commercial basis -- and then at the top are the working farmhouse breweries themselves. He mentions that beer from this first-order group is very difficult to find in Vilnius, and even when you get it, it won't be as good as at the brewery. Of course, that line gets trotted out about drinking at the source the world over, but the crucial difference with Lithuanian farmhouse beer is that it isn't boiled during brewing, so the finished product has a shelf life of about 20 days. If you were waiting for these beers to arrive in your local off licence to find out what they're about, that isn't going to happen. The unique yeasts involved mean you can probably forget about clones showing up at your local homebrew club too.

Fortunately, there are a handful of places where proper farmhouse beer is available in Vilnius, and Lars Marius tells us where. Hence, early in the holiday, we took a walk to the Užupis district, to visit Šnekutis. There are a few branches of this small pub chain around the city. It specialises in the most traditional Lithuanian food and beer, and the house draught comes from the Jovaru farmhouse brewery. The Užupis Šnekutis pub itself is great fun: a poky wood and brick shack by the side of the street, filled with all manner of rustic and rusty bric-à-brac. Jovaru Alus is 6% ABV and a murky orange in colour. It's... odd. For one thing it's very sweet: bready, cakey, and with a hint of herbal honey which I'm guessing is down to the family heirloom yeast. A honeyed version does exist but they were all out. No boil means no hop bittering, so what balance there is comes from the savoury bite of the yeast. Despite the strength, the texture is light and the carbonation low which makes it really quite drinkable. It manages a lovely mouthwatering juiciness that has nothing to do with hops. My first experience of Lithuanian farmhouse beer was a positive one.

The next was in a very different sort of pub. Alaus Namai is a large canteen-like bar in the basement of a Soviet-era building and is frequented by a mainly younger crowd. There's a wide selection of draught beers, including several on cask. Ramunas Čižas was on Lars Marius's recommendations of things to drink here, so that's what I went for, it being another from the top-tier real-farmhouse breweries. It was served in a clay mug with a healthy layer of foam but from what I could tell it's a murky brown colour. There's lots of rather homebrewish yeast in the favour and a big Orval-like funk. This jostles uncomfortably with a savoury Bovril beefiness. Orval and Bovril is not a winning combination. I mean, it's drinkable, but I found it hard to escape the overall dregginess. It's certainly nowhere near as nuanced as Jovaru.

On the walk back to the middle of town we dropped into the Vilnius branch of Alynus, part of a national chain of specialist beer pubs. It's not very pubby, the bright lights and shop window making it feel more like a bakery or café. I opted for the house beer, Alyno Šviesusis. I've no idea who makes it or what it's meant to be, but I'm assuming that it's in some sort of traditional style because it's lousy with diacetyl. The smell is pure concentrated butterscotch, the mouthfeel slick, and once you get past the sweetness in the flavour there's just a tiny amount of crisp lager malt left behind and maybe a teeny hint of green hops. However you slice it or make excuses for it, this is just a crappy lager.

I bought a handful of bottles at the supermarket to try, tempted mostly by the way the traditional breweries got their own, stand-alone wood-effect fridge. From this I picked a one litre bottle of Butautų Dvaro Šviesusi, a pale 5%-er by one of the second-tier traditional-style breweries. It's not bad either: there's the characteristic yeast-and-honey thing that I found in Jovaru but it's less complex, more like a simple Belgian blonde ale, though with perhaps a hint of extra pepper. Refreshing and easy-going, as I guess good farmhouse beer should be.

I also picked up two bottles from the Tarušku brewery. Amber-gold Kanapinis Šviesusis didn't do a great job of mixing up those traditional flavours, packing honey, Horlicks and butterscotch into a dense 5.1% ABV package that was a bit of a mistake to attempt after a large meal. And as I plodded through it it didn't get any better as it warmed. Its twin is, of course, Kanapinis Tamsusis, a little stronger at 5.3% ABV though unfortunately just as buttery. The diacetyl is a little less jarring when mixed in with some milk chocolate like this, but it still wasn't enjoyable to drink. It was also the palest tamsusis I encountered, not that that helped its drinkability.

And another tamsusis to finish on: Davra's Varniukų Tamsusis, which happens to be one of our guide's favourites. I got a definite waft of diacetyl butterscotch from this but thankfully it tastes drier and is pleasantly light of texture. A certain amount of toffee does creep in as it warms but it's balanced with a gentle roasted grain bite and a hint of blackberry fruitiness. I think I'd prefer something a little bit cleaner, but that's not how rustic operations like Davra and the others above operate. Take it or leave it.

I got no more than a very superficial skimming of the tip of Lithuanian farmhouse brewing but I think I came away with an impression of what it is. It's certainly unique, as I was told before I went. But is it any good? My gut feeling is that a week of honey and butterscotch would be my limit and I'd be craving something drier and/or bitterer soon after. I offer my best wishes for the future to traditional Lithuanian beer, but I can't say I left hankering for one more mugful.

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