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The Baltics - Eurostars
Adrian Tierney-Jones gives us the low down on some exciting Baltic countries producing excellent beers.
You can have too much history. Just ask the Baltic States: Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. In the past few centuries these three have been battlegrounds for a variety of foreign armies from the Teutonic Knights to Gustavus Adolphus’ rampaging Swedes and, not forgetting much nearer to our time, the mighty bouts between the Wehrmacht and the Red Army.
They have been unwilling parts of various empires, one minute swearing allegiance to the Kaiser the next to the Tsar.
This is a region that could almost be compared with Flanders in its role as the fatal avenue through which armies have marched over the centuries.
The influence of history also shows itself in the beers of these countries, though the Baltic States lack the same rich and diverse beer culture that is found in Flanders. Historically, the Russian part was home to the legendary imperial stout that was exported to the area from Great Britain during the 19th century.
Its heir is now commonly known as Baltic porter, a noble beer that still clings on by its fingertips in the area, with brewers such as A Le Coq, Saku and Aldaris producing small batches of the dark stuff. Poland, which is also a member of this exclusive club of Baltic porter producers by virtue of its northern seaboard, has the marvellous Zywiec Porter.
The best examples of these delicious cold-fermented beers are rich, dark and bittersweet; these are aristocratic beers, elegant and noble but not easily discovered. Once more they are sadly in decline on their home turf, but very popular amongst connoisseurs in foreign markets, especially the United States.
There are various reasons for the decline in the popularity of Baltic porters: it could be caused by Balts keen to show their desire to be part of the west by aping the drinking preferences of their new European partners. Or if it might be something to do with the fact that the big brewing companies that have moved into the area have brought with them the sort of marketing folk who scratch their heads over the relatively long maturation times Baltic porters need.
However, the scarcity of Baltic porters is nothing next to the region’s king of rare beers: this would be the Estonian Sahti, influenced by the juniper-tinged beer of its Finnish neighbour to the north. This is rarely commercially brewed (apart from Kadakaolu, Viru Olu’s juniper-flavoured lager), but if you are lucky on your travels you might find home-brewed versions.
So, if we are talking of the dominant beers in the area it’s no surprise to discover that it’s the German brewing industry that has influenced matters.
Pilsners, helles, bocks and, now, even weissbier: all have become familiar figures in breweries’ portfolios. Coldfermenting lagered beers rule the roost, though a lot of the bigger breweries are also going in for gimmicky mixes: anyone for a beer and berry juice blend? No I thought not.
A good example of this Teutonic brewing influence can be found at Svyturys-Utenos. This popular Lithuanian brewery is in Klaipéda, a Baltic port that used to go under the German name of Memel. The brewery itself is an unremarkable looking, even dowdy, place that dates from the 1970s. It is close to part of the old town, though there is pressure for it to move further to the outskirts of the city. The brewery is best known for its fresh and fragrant Dortmunder-style beer Ekstra Draught.
This has a rich, spicy malty character with lemony hop hints, a silky smooth body with a fresh finish.
The brewery also produces an awardwinning creamy and cloudy wheat beer — Baltas White — a caramelly, biscuity, bittersweet Alder Bock and its oldest beer Baltijos, which has toasted rye bread on the nose, toffee and chocolate on the palate and a bittersweet finish. This seems similar to the Polish beer style called Palone. Carlsberg is also contract brewed at Svyturys-Utenos (the Danish giants have a share in the brewery), but out in the bars and restaurants of the capital Vilnius it is local beers all the way, with Ekstra’s popularity being joined by the dry and slightly lemony Kalnapilis and the tangy and delicately spicy Utenos.
Vilnius is also home to the Avilys brewpub. The street entrance features brewing equipment but the bar and restaurant is downstairs in a cellar with muted lighting and lots of beer-related posters on the walls. The menu majors in beer cuisine, including beer soup, trout cooked in beer steam and green hop butter; there are even beer cocktails. The beers aren’t bad either, with the dark, chestnut-coloured unfiltered Koria boasting roast grain, liquorice and mocha coffee on the palate and a very refreshing, vinous finish.
A survivor of the traditional link between Baltic breweries and Britain doesn’t come any clearer than the one that exists between Estonia’s A Le Coq and Harvey’s of Lewes. The brewery, which is based in the city of Tartu, came into being under its current name in 1912 and was named after a 19th century beer agent Albert Le Coq, who shipped Imperial Stouts to the Baltic.
Towards the end of the 1990s, this link inspired an exciting collaboration between the two breweries. The old imperial stout recipes still existed and Harvey’s head brewer Miles Jenner produced an extraordinary beer, A Le Coq Imperial Extra Double Stout.
Over in Tartu, the brewery still produces a luscious porter, plus a spicy one for Christmas. They also brew a refreshing Premium, the best-selling beer in Estonia, and a weighty Double Bock.
The brewery has made their name in the UK with the 5% lager Viru, which is packaged in a turret-shaped bottle. Other breweries in Estonia include Saku (the oldest) and Viru Olu. Along with A Le Coq, these two account for the vast majority of beers brewed and drank in Estonia. The micro-brewing revolution has yet to put down its roots yet.
Latvia, like Lithuania, has however been touched by the brewpub phenomenon. The capital Riga is home to Lido, a sort of entertainment/amusement park celebrating Latvian culture. There is a small onsite brewery, which produces a couple of unfiltered lagers, alongside a mead. They are light and refreshing and can be enjoyed with the robust Latvian dishes served in the beer cellar.
There are dozens of breweries in Latvia with the largest being Aldaris, who are also based in the capital Riga (the country’s best selling alcoholic beverage, however, is a ready-mixed gin cocktail).
Even though the brewery produces a smooth and silky dark beer called Porteris, it is best known for its selection of blonde lager beers, including the bittersweet Aldara Originalais.
Other popular breweries include Cesu Alus, which is the oldest brewery in the country but has been owned by A Le Coq since 1999. It produces a beer called Disel, which is promoted with the sort of PR guff not seen in the United Kingdom since the days of Double Diamond working wonders: ‘We recommend this beer to the ones who possess the powers of soul and flesh!’ Make of that what you will…