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The Baltics - Baltic blitz
The Eastern European countries of Lithuania, Estonia, Poland and Latvia are still producing some exciting beers. Adrian Tierney-Jones reports
Late at night in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius and I am hunting for an elusive Baltic porter. As I amble along the quiet streets, a chap crosses the road from a group of idling taxi drivers and asks if I am looking for anything. A pause
“Like girls?” he says. Not at the moment thanks, I quickly reply, and then ask if he knows of any pubs that sell the luscious, roasty Lithuanian porter brewed by Utenos. He scratches his head, nonplussed by an offbeat request from someone whose fellow countrymen usually spend their time roaming Vilnius looking for lap-dancing clubs. He then points to a street and mentions an Irish pub I have just passed. Guinness is not what I want.
The post-war years may have seen lager styles washing over the Baltic States and Eastern Europe with the rapidity of the Red Army in 1944, but it was Baltic porters that always sprang to mind when connoisseurs thought of beer in this part of the world. These beers were legendary survivors of the British trading incursions into the region during the late 18th and early 19th century, early versions of the export trade that would come to full fruition with the globetrotting India pale ale.
Russian Tsars and Polish noblemen loved these strong dark imperial stouts and porters, and when the Napoleonic Wars hindered trade the local breweries got in on the act. In the Russian-run fiefdom of Estonia, the A Le Coq brewery was noted for its version, whose recipe British brewer Harvey’s used for its magnificent Imperial Russian Stout. Poland, also under the Russian yoke, developed its own porter, with Zywiec and Okocim being responsible for some of the more notable ones (the Carlsbergowned Okocim has now stopped brewing one).
Times change and the Baltic porter is a niche drink, a relic of the days of empire, both British and Russian (and you could say a victim of the new empire-building by global brewing corporations). Nowadays, Eastern European drinkers have seen the light (of lager) and porter sales throughout Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Poland have collapsed; less and less breweries are also producing their own.
It is estimated that approximately 10 are produced in Poland with only Zywiec seemingly the sole producer of draught porter. Lithuania has also lost many of its porters, Latvian brewery Aldaris produces a smooth and silky 6.8% Porteris, while A Le Coq in Tartu has kept faith with tradition. This change could be caused by drinkers keen to show their desire to be part of the west by aping the drinking preferences of their German and Czech neighbours.
Or it might be something to do with the fact that big brewing companies such as Carlsberg, InBev and S&N have moved in, bringing with them the sort of marketing folk who scratch their heads over the relatively long maturation times Baltic porters need.
Yet, do not imagine for one moment that the beer culture of the region is on its back legs. These countries are producing a smattering of excellent dark beers, but they are also brewing highly polished, well-crafted German styles: helles, dortmunders and even Baltic versions of Bavarian weizen (further east in Ukraine Etalon’s superbly fruity and fragrant wheat beer beats the likes of Erdinger into a cocked hat).
The bestselling beer in Lithuania is Ekstra Draught, a 5.2% Dortmunder-style lager brewed by Svyturys. It has a rich, spicy malty character with lemony hop hints, a silky smooth body with a fresh finish. It is gloriously delicious and sold in two versions in Lithuania.
Ekstra Draught is a cold-filtered unpasteurised version, while Ekstra Ordinary is also pasteurised; they are sold in bottle though what is called the ‘fresh’ version is also put into keg.
“Being the most popular beer in Lithuania we can dispense with pasteurising it,” I am told by Dainius Smailys from Svyturys-Utenos (these two breweries merged in 2001). “We tell bar-owners that they have to sell it within three weeks or they won’t be selling it at all.” At a tasting at Svyturys Brewery I discover that the draught has more hop fragrance, while the Ordinary had a drier, grainy finish; both have good natural carbonation and none of the harsh CO2 bite some continental and home-grown lagers have. Try it with the omnipresent Lithuanian beer snack of garlicky black bread with mayonnaise dressing.
Svyturys is based in Klaipéda, an old port on the Baltic, where a sand bar stretches westwards to the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. It used to be a German city called Memel. As well as producing Ekstra, Svyturys brews the reddish-brown Alder Bock, the dunkel style Baltijos, the brewery’s oldest brand, with plenty of spicy malt on the palate, plus a refreshing cloudy wheat beer, Baltas White.
Dzulijeta Armoniené is the head brewer, a likeable and quiet soul who joined the brewery after leaving college some 26 years before. She looks after 51 people and oversees a process of production that can get through 30,000 hectolitres every 24 hours during busy times in the year.
“I created Ekstra,” she tells me, “when I was asked to produce a certain beer by the marketing people and at first I didn’t know what style to produce. When it went to the World Beer Cup in 2000 it won silver in the dortmunder category. As for Baltas White we brought that out in 2004.
It’s a small volume but keeps growing.
It was the first in the collection of special Svyturys beers; we want to educate people about beer. The bock is also part of the collection.” Svyturys is the oldest working brewery in a country that has seen plenty of conflict in the last few centuries. The brewery was rebuilt at the end of the Second World War, and updated in the 1970s in true communist bloc utilitarian style. The exterior is slightly shabby, but the brewhouse is a glorious space of stainless steel, tall wide windows, marble steps and floor and a spicy malt aroma in the air.
One of the most notable aspects of beers in this part of the world is their strength. Some put it down to the popularity of vodka, while cold winters also account for a desire for a warming, alcoholic beer, even if it is light in colour.
Over in Lithuania’s southern neighbour Poland, it will come as no surprise to anyone who’s been following the rise of Polish beers in the United Kingdom that Zywiec and Tyskie are the bestsellers.
These foreign-owned breweries can now boast a pedigree going back several centuries (Zywiec’s history can be traced back as far as 1448), though given Poland’s fractured history I would doubt that brewing was continuous. Beers such as Tyskie, Zywiec, Lech and Okocim owe a lot more to German beer rather than their neighbours in the Czech Republic. This even stretches as far as some breweries producing what they call Marzen or bocks (pale of course).
Tyskie is a winsome take on the German pilsener style with a delicate aroma of Starburst fruit chews on the nose, underscored by a wisp of caramel, a light bready, malt-accented palate with a bittersweet finish.
Another brewery whose beers are worth hunting out is Brok in Koszalin, the biggest town in north-western Poland. Guess what, it makes a porter, a big-tasting 9.2% bruiser of coffee and roast notes, while the bittersweet, malt-edged Sambor and a robust pale bock-style called Strong are very good.
A visit to the ancient city of Krakow, known as the Polish Prague, is also recommended. It is here at Christmas time that draught porters from nearby Zywiec can be found in polypins to provide a rich, very malty, roasty and alcoholic beer that is a great comfort on a cold night.
As well as the foreign-owned breweries, there are nearly 50 independent breweries, where you will find the likes of a Mocne, a strong Spezial-style lager, or a Palone, which veers towards an amber lager. There is a noted hop-growing area around Lublin and the Perla beers of the Lublin brewery sing with fragrant hoppiness. Then there are several brewpubs, though the phenomenon has not taken root in Poland in the same way it has elsewhere in Europe.
Nevertheless, Warsaw is home to both Bierhalle and Browarmia Królewska, where the dedicated drinker will find pilseners, alts, weissens and even Irish dry stouts. Sadly, the old Polish speciality Grodziskie, a beer brewed with smoked malt, wheat and wild yeast, vanished in the early 1990s.
Back in Vilnius the search for a Baltic porter has proved fruitless, but I find the Avilys brewpub instead. Apparently, the name means ‘bees’ house’, which is why one of the homebrewed beers has been made with honey. This is a 4.8% amber-coloured honey-lager with subtle sweetness, a soft malt centre and a bitter hop finish. However, it’s the Koria (4.8%) that grabs my attention; though not as pitch black as porter, this is a dark, chestnut-coloured unfiltered beer with oodles of complexity. Toffee and caramel are on the nose, while roast grain, liquorice, coffee float on the palate; it is vinous, not bitter or sweet, but very refreshing. The empire strikes back.
Svyturys Ekstra (5.2%)
Svyturys Baltijos (6%)
Utenos Alus (5.2%)
Zywiec Porter (9.5%)
Brok Sambor (6%)
Aldaris Porteris (6.8%)
A Le Coq Viru (5%)
An excellent source for bars and breweries in the east (and the rest of Europe) is