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Lithuania and its peculiar, little-known farmhouse ales

Like a time machine, Lithuania’s rustic, traditional kaimiskas offer a portal to an era before industrialization. And you can drink them today.
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Bartender at Snekutis Stepono // Jovaru Alus brewer Aldona Udriene //  Brewers at Pakruojo Dvaras // Photos by Joe Stange

Left to right: Bartender at Snekutis Stepono // Jovaru Alus brewer Aldona Udriene // Brewers at Pakruojo Dvaras // Photos by Joe Stange

Aldona Udriene sat at her dining room table near a painted portrait of herself.

As the undisputed queen of Lithuanian farmhouse brewing, she is allowed to have a painting of herself. She offered us glass after glass of a strong, spiced brandy that was distilled from Jovaru, the beer she brews. If we finished one, another would appear. My guide had warned me about the local etiquette: “You have to drink, because if you do not drink, it means you hate her.”

Of course I didn’t hate her. I just preferred to drink her strange, opaque, tangy, full-bodied, fruity, complex and compelling beer, rather than the liquor. “It’s to warm up,” she said through a friend who interpreted for me. “Nobody who has drunk it has ever gotten a headache.”

Well, I can be polite. So I drank the brandy. And she told us about how she was a survivor. I don’t mean that metaphorically, although her old-fashioned, rustic backyard brewery has survived communism, industrialization and high-tech market capitalism.

As a young girl, she suffered severe burns in an accidental explosion and was in a coma for about six weeks. Her family didn’t expect her to recover. So it was a surprise to all when she woke up, only to find a small coffin and burial dress lying next to her.

“Who died?” she asked.

She told us that she awoke because, somehow, she sensed that the coffin was there. She had to wake up, she said, so that she could grow up and carry on the business started by her grandfather, now a family tradition of 130 years.

“I woke up just to brew,” she said. “I felt the beer, and the future.”

When we name the world’s great beer-drinking people—the Czechs, Germans, Belgians, Brits, and what the hell, Americans, too—we probably ought to include the Lithuanians.

Based on their number of breweries, distinct brewing traditions, sheer quantity consumed and beer’s importance in their social life, they belong in that echelon. But people rarely mention Lithuania in that conversation, because they don’t know much about it.

So, I’ll tell you something about traditional Lithuanian beer, why it is weird and sometimes wonderful, and also why it divides opinion.

But first let’s talk about time travel. Beer has many uses—recreation, nutrition and socialization, to name a few—but another thing you can do with beer is voyage through time and space.

The way I see it, in the absence of a real-working TARDIS, certain beers do a better job than most things of taking us back to other eras. OK, you might have to nudge it. It helps if you crack a good book, consume a moderate amount of alcohol, close your eyes, maybe play some period-appropriate music, or otherwise use your imagination … but I promise you, it works.

Or let me put it this way: If you watch “Game of Thrones” and see Tyrion Lannister drinking ale from a horn, and you find yourself deeply curious about what that would’ve tasted like … Well, then maybe you should visit Lithuania to drink their fresh kaimiskas—raw, yeasty, old-fashioned farmhouse ales.

I understand that most of you will not actually visit Lithuania. It’s not practical. Normally for us Yanks, trans-Atlantic trips are rare life experiences limited by budget and vacation time. Even when you pull it off, Lithuania likely falls below places like Belgium, Germany and the Czech Republic on your beer bucket list. Fair enough.

Nonetheless, Lithuania is one of the world’s most interesting beer cultures—idiosyncratic and anachronistic, dislodged from space and time. It’s an aberration thanks to a series of historical accidents. It was late to industrialize; then came world wars and Soviet control, so private brewing went underground. It resurfaced in time to participate in the resurgence of national identity (only earning its independence in the early 1990s), even as it has remained relatively obscure.

Kaimiskas and other traditional beers are part of the Lithuanian cultural fabric. People don’t necessarily drink it every day—they drink lager, like everyone else—but they look for it at weekend markets and folk festivals.

These beers are unlike those produced anywhere else in the world, vestigial remnants of low-tech times. They are flux capacitors in liquid form.

∞ ∞ ∞

Your time-traveling imagination gets a nice boost if people wear historically accurate costumes and tell you stories. It happened to me in Pakruojis, in the Lithuanian Highlands.

It took about two hours to drive to the northern Highlands, a hotbed of traditional brewing. These Highlands are not very high, to be fair—the endless farmland started to bulge a little—but there are a high number of breweries up there, many unknown even to Lithuanian geeks.

Our first stop was a tiny one on the grounds of Pakruojo Dvaras, a restored 16th century baronial manor—something like their version of colonial Williamsburg. There to greet us was a portly brewer in straw hat, roughspun cloak and leather tunic.

He introduced himself as Zaldokas. (That’s the name, I learned, of a legendary brewer from one of Lithuania’s most famous plays. Sadly, it’s not famous anywhere else. It says something about a culture when one of its most important plays is principally about a brewer and his family.)

The smell of frying pancakes welcomed us to the cool, stone brewhouse, in an outbuilding on the estate. The brewer’s wife makes them out of home-ground malt flour, and we watched as she cooked them on a cast-iron skillet over a wood stove. The only light came from candles and a couple of windows—no electricity. Behind her, notably, were the brewing vessels, all made of wood.

(If you’ve tinkered in homebrewing, this should send up a red flag. You know you can’t boil wort in a wooden barrel. We’ll get back to that.)

Besides the fresh pancakes and some addictive smoked cheese, Zaldokas shared three different beers with us. Each was brewed from the same batch of malt but to three different strengths. The first-grade beer is strongest, made from the first runnings; the second-grade is from the second runnings, and the third is the final and lightest.

I found the third-grade beer to be refreshing while still full of fruity, spicy flavor from the hops and fermentation. When I told Zaldokas this, he told me the old joke about why American beer is like sex in a canoe. Ho ho. But his third-grade beer, I can say, was not fucking close to water.

For each beer, he and his wife tapped a different, small wooden barrel. Each time, the beer gushed dramatically, having fermented and carbonated in there naturally. It’s all part of the show. Then they collected each beer into a bucket and poured it into a carafe, and from there into our mugs.

The beer was cloudy and its foam didn’t last long. It smelled fruity but also a bit musty and faintly smoky. It had tang and zest—like orange peel and sourdough—with a mild, comforting sweetness and low bitterness—but I was discovering new flavors until the bottom of the glass.

“The biggest secret of the brewer is yeast,” he said, according to my translator. “He brews from his own yeast. He made it and he doesn’t buy it.”

“It’s also about the energy. When you are happy, when you are good with your wife, if all is OK … the emotion you gave to the beer, it goes to the people.”

His low-tech brew days—and you can participate, by reserving a spot with the manor—are drawn-out affairs as long as 18 hours. “We try to have as much fun as possible. The process is fun. My daughter comes to play guitar. Children are dancing.”

The brewer’s real name, incidentally, is Laimutis Bartasius. About 10 days after we visited, he accepted a national award that named his family’s historically oriented brewery one of Lithuania’s top gastronomic projects. He accepted the certificate on stage, in full costume.

∞ ∞ ∞

Bambalyne cellar bar and shop // Photo by Joe Stange

Bambalyne cellar bar and shop // Photo by Joe Stange

Something you need to know about proper kaimiskas: It’s raw.

Walking into a brewery like Udriene’s Jovaru or the one at Pakruojo Manor, and you may notice that something is missing: the boil kettle. The wort is never boiled.

That sounds weird because it is weird. There are lots of reasons to boil wort before fermentation, but a dozen or so Lithuanian brewers—and many more traditional brewers across the Baltic and Nordic regions—are stubborn enough to like it their way.

Sparingly, they do use hops—occasionally foraging for wild ones, but often using the cheapest they can get. They boil them separately to make a sort of hop tea before adding it to the wort. The mash is warm enough to pasteurize the wort, and the beer is safe to drink. But it’s also more perishable than most and susceptible to certain off flavors. It ought to be drunk as fresh as possible.

These beers deserve their own frame of reference. I had been warned about them, which helped to manage expectations. I tasted about 10 different ones and there was occasionally a faint, savory whiff of butter or cooked corn—more than you’d expect from a polished commercial brewery, but within the range of what you might get from Franconian lager, for example. It’s odd, but not enough to hinder drinking. I might have gotten lucky, but I found virtually all the raw beers to be tasty and beguiling, each glass raising more questions than answers. Then I’d happily order another, without getting any closer to solving the mystery.

These quirks are part of the rustic package.

Far stranger, to me, was the unusual character that comes from a beer with such full mouthfeel—giving the strong impression of sweetness—but then finishing dry and inspiring another gulp. Even among Belgium’s eccentric ales, I’d never encountered anything like it. I did get the impression that I was drinking something primitive, comforting and nutritious. Skipping the boil leaves a lot of malt protein in the beer, and that is likely what gives kaimiskas its peculiar character.

Those residual proteins, we can suppose, are conspiring with some highly unusual and expressive yeast. Traditional kaimiskas yeast is a family heirloom handed down over generations, and it does not behave like any other.

The brewers I met never refresh their yeast from a lab. Instead, they simply harvest yeast from the last batch and pitch it into the next one—perpetually. Modern brewers rarely repitch their yeast more than 10 times without starting over; yeast tends to mutate and lose effectiveness. Not kaimiskas yeast, it would appear. At Jovarai, Udriene said her yeast is the same strain that her grandfather started using about 130 years ago.

It’s an incredible claim and difficult to verify. But there is some evidence—beyond tasting the beer, which makes it pretty clear—that the yeast is highly unusual.

Curious about these odd properties, Canadian beer writer Martin Thibault sent a sample of Udrienes Jovaru yeast to a lab at McGill University in Montreal in 2012. They sequenced its DNA and found it to be significantly different than other ale yeasts.

“These results therefore suggest,” Thibault wrote, “that the Lithuanian strain might belong to a species yet to be identified … In other words, we might have found a new frog species. Or simply a known frog species with a fifth leg and a third eye.”

∞ ∞ ∞

Speaking of weirdness: After Lithuania regained its independence from the Soviets, some locals in Vilnius, the capital, replaced a sculpture of Lenin with … wait for it … one of Frank Zappa. Why Zappa? Because, I think, they were enjoying the newly found freedom to act absurdly.

Absurd might also be the word for the cartoonish moustache you will see repeatedly if you drink in certain Vilnius pubs. The man behind that moustache—and his straw hat, which wears a wee straw hat of its own—is Valentas Vaskevicius. I reckon he is better known locally as “the Snekutis guy,” since that’s the name of his famous pub chain. There are three Snekutis pubs now, but he opened the first one in 2007, south of the city center. It was the first pub in Vilnius totally dedicated to traditional beers and breweries.

Most of the pubs I visited in Vilnius offered a variety of traditional beers, including the occasional raw ale, mixed in with more familiar novelty styles that have caught on internationally.

Besides the farmhouse breweries, Lithuania also has several more breweries that are relatively traditional in their devotion to what they call “live” beer—unfiltered, unpasteurized and naturally carbonated. In keeping with the Lithuanian character, they have plenty of body while showcasing malt- and yeast-driven flavors and aromas. They tend to be more polished than raw ale, and they also last longer.

Meanwhile, Lithuania is not immune to the trend toward IPAs and “craft,” and large concerns are cashing in on rising interest and higher margins. In Vilnius, I saw a giant billboard featuring half-liter cans of “Mr. Hops” hoppy lager, sparkling wheat and brown ale. “Crafted for an ordinary day,” the cans say in English. The brewery is Utenos, owned by Carlsberg and putting out 100 million liters of beer per year.

It’s not clear where this leaves kaimiskas, which has never really caught on in a big way. Alongside gira—the Lithuanian version of kvass, a low-alcohol drink brewed with dark rye—the locals expect to find it primarily at weekend markets and occasional festivals. Few would think to drink it regularly, even if a few pubs have made it possible.

There are still only a relative handful of these farmhouse breweries producing raw ale, and their long-term survival is far from certain. The brewers are getting older and, like farmers’ kids, the next generation isn’t always interested.

∞ ∞ ∞

Udriene awoke from her coma and went on to become one of Lithuania’s most visible ambassadors for traditional farmhouse brewing.

At her house, among the pictures of herself and her friend Vaskevicius—the Snekutis guy—there are plenty of family portraits too. One who appears in several of them is a tall lad with foppish brown hair. That’s her grandson.

Udriene, who will turn 70 this year, said she is grooming him to take over, so there will be someone else to look after this eccentric brewery and farm its yeast.

“My dream is that my children, grandchildren could also make beer, and keep the traditions,” she said, over brandy, again. “I’m a true Lithuanian; I care about traditions. It’s a continuous thing. It stays in the family.”

So the queen of kaimiskas has named a prince, and there appears to be something of a future for this powerful drink that can take us to the past.

 

Author
Joe Stange is the author of Around Brussels in 80 Beers and co-author of Good Beer Guide Belgium. Follow him on Twitter @Thirsty_Pilgrim.

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5 Comments

  • Me says:

    It should be illegal for web pages to highjack the scroll bar.

  • Mark says:

    Despite the fact that the article seems to imply that these beers are hard to come by in Lithuania, they are, including Kaimiskas and others, at fairly big grocery stores, but some are found in Vilnius only during street festivals, where public drinking, although technically a crime, is tolerated, such as the St Casimir’s fair and Uzganenes (Lithuanian Fat Tuesday celebrations). Most bars in Vilnius, however, are pumping out the choad of sweet, barely hopped lagers such as Utenos and Svyturys, both owned by Carlsberg.

    Sadly, the Lithuanian small brewers (in a country of three million, anything not owned by Carlsberg or Kalnapilis is a true microbrewery) took a hit when alcohol sales were restricted from 24 hours per day to 8am til 10pm, and local breweries began to be restricted to 7.5%, or less. Up until then, you could go to kiosks and purchase sticky, hastily filled bottles of many “farmhouse” brews from 6 to 10 percent…. these were never sold in retail supermarkets.

    In Lithuania, almost all beer is sold in half-liter cans or bottles, and larger volumes are sold in plastic. 5.2% is considered normal, and mst beers labeled as “traditional’ are 6.0%… recently, a new beer, purposefully labeled as “weak beer” came to market: it is 4.5%.

  • Joe Stange says:

    Great insight, Mark. Thanks for the extra context.

  • […] Litauen: Vi har så smått planer om en liten baltisk roadtrip neste sommer, og da skal vi definitivt sørge for å få smakt litauisk kaimiska. […]

  • Lars Qvicklund says:

    Thank you Joe for a very informative and inspiring article. I’m going to lithuania this summer to visit some of my wifes relatives. Now I have an important mission.

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