12 October 2015

Welcome to Vilnius

I spent a few days in Lithuania last month, mainly because I'd never been but I was partially also drawn to what I'd heard of the beer scene. Lithuania has a long history of farmhouse brewing, one which has survived into the present day, even making recent inroads into mainstream commercial brewing. But I'll come to that later. My guide throughout was the short but thorough Lithuanian Beer: The Rough Guide by Lars Marius Garshol, and I strongly recommend downloading a copy if you're thinking of heading to Lithuania. It covers the whole country but I didn't really move out of the capital Vilnius on my stay.

So we'll start with the city's own brand of beer: Vilniaus Alus. It's fairly ubiquitous in shops and pubs, on draught and in 33cl bottles. One of the supermarkets re-badges the brand slightly as "Amber City", thought the label is otherwise the same. It's a big range but I only tried a handful of them. The brewery owns a poky little bar near the castle called 13 Statinių. There's space for about twenty punters but it seems to do more business filling bottles for takeaway, and the draught range is split down the middle between Vilniaus Alus and guest microbrews.

Fairly standard eastern European lager style rules apply in Lithuania: you have your pale šviesusis, dark tamsusis, and kvietinis -- the wheat beer. In this place I had a Vilniaus Kvietinis. It arrived a murky pale yellow (picture, right) and had an enticing coriander aroma. The flavour is tangy, possibly even a bit sour, with sweet orange cordial and some oily incense spices. Enjoyable to begin with, but after a few mouthfuls it slips into a kind of witbier uncanny valley: similar enough to call witbier to mind, but too watery and a bit soapy to be considered a good example of one.

Vilniaus Šviesusis Nefiltruotas is, as the name makes clear, a pale unfiltered lager. Once again there's bags of concentrated orange in the flavour here, but instead of spices or yeast character there's a wholesome breadiness. It could almost pass for a good unfiltered pils if it wasn't so sweet. More fruit scone than bread, perhaps. On the whole a simple and refreshing beer though probably not as quaffable as its makers would like it to be.

And then there was Vilniaus Tamsusis Žolelių Skonio. A dark beer, yes -- you're learning fast -- but one flavoured with herbs, in an allegedly traditional rustic style. I found it in Bambalynė, a rather fabulous cellar pub in the old town which stocks bottles only and offers a vast selection to choose from. You even get to pick your own glass. It's really the perfect place for the confused foreign beer geek to work through the national offerings in comfort without having to point at taps or ask questions (not that this was ever a problem -- Lithuanians are very polite and helpful, and mostly have great English). Anyway, the beer. It's wine-coloured and poured headless. The aroma offers strong sage and a sweeter eucalyptus note which, now that I have a list of the herbs used to hand, may have been a combination of the clove and aniseed. Medicinal either way. It's quite flat and has a very cola-like sweet and slightly woody flavour. Deeper down there's prune juice and a little burnt caramel. I liked it, there's a lot going on, it's just not very beery.

That's it from Vilniaus Alus, but before moving on, a word on a couple of the national industrial beers. I had both of these in restaurants where there was nothing better. Švyturys even has a dedicated beer themed restaurant in the old town, which we stumbled into without knowing what it was until we saw the menu, honest. I had a Švyturys Memelbräu, an amber-gold lager which smells of markers and has a very hot Belgian ester quality so I was very surprised to learn it's only 5.3% ABV. There are pears and aniseed in here as well, and a slight spicing at the back. Once you get used to the heat and strong flavours it's actually quite drinkable, but not something I'd choose again.

Another restaurant, another large brewery: Kalnapilis Grand Select was on tap in this weird but fun Russian-run US-style barbecue place we found on the last night. No fancy Belgian tricks here, just a nicely heavy, clean, Dortmunder-esque dark gold lager. It's one I could have had another of, if I wasn't stuffed full of meat.

So that's the basic vocabulary covered. Tomorrow we'll get properly stuck into Lithuania's unique take on beer.

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