During a hard October rain two years ago, I finished a three-day stay in the remarkable beer city of Vilnius, Lithuania, by picking up a couple of bottles of locally made pale lager at a bottle shop. It’s far from the most interesting beer to be found in that city, yet in some ways, it illustrates why Lithuania is such an amazing beer country.
Vilniaus Light Unfiltered is a lager made on modern equipment—ostensibly a member of the largest family of beers in the world. Nothing about it was typical, though. The malts tasted prominently of dry cracker, yet they were as soft as any I’ve tasted. The beer had a dollop of light diacetyl sweetness that tended toward honey, adding mouthfeel and texture rather than an overt buttery flavor. It was lightly fruity and under-carbonated. In a blind tasting, I would have mistaken it for an ale.
Had it been my first beer, I might have chalked it up to a quirky producer who probably needed a bit more process control. Instead, I smiled with recognition—all those elements are typical of the rustic local ales, too. Lithuania’s native brewing tradition, which stretches back centuries to the farms of the countryside, never was fully severed and in recent years has begun to blossom again. While local farmhouse ales—known as kaimiškas (pronounced kai-mish-kus)—are uncommon, drinkers can still find them on draft in Vilnius. Their influence is strong enough to create a distinctive local palate so pervasive that it seems to influence craft brewers and even large-scale lager breweries such as Vilniaus.
More than just influence, it also represents one of the most unusual and exotic traditions in the world.
A Unique Country with Unique Traditions
A small Eastern European country of three million people, Lithuania is the southernmost of a troika (along with Estonia and Latvia) lining the eastern shore of the Baltic Sea. Unlike the Belarussians, Poles, and Russians nearby, Lithuanians are not Slavic; in fact, the Lithuanian language is closely related only to Latvian. (Estonia speaks a language more closely related to Finnish.) Remarkably, Lithuanian has existed as a distinct spoken language only since around the 12th century—and the oldest text is just 500 years old. The Lithuanians were among the last Europeans to be Christianized, practicing their traditional, polytheistic faith until conversion began around 1400. Lithuanians hung onto their indigenous culture more than a millennium longer than most European countries.
More changes came in the 16th century, when Lithuania joined Poland in a commonwealth that lasted for more than 200 years. The arrangement transformed the nobility, who took to speaking Polish. After the Polish union, bigger change came with Russian control—first under the czars and later the Soviets. Despite efforts to Russify Lithuania, however, locals resisted, secretly educating their children at home. Even during the Soviet period, when political and linguistic controls were far stricter, Lithuanians secretly held onto their old ways.
For this small, stubborn country, practicing a traditional craft became an act of nationalism. To this day, many Lithuanians are engaged in preserving their cultural history. One can see it in local crafts, revivalist fairs, and a growing interest in pre-Christian mythology. This fervor is perhaps most evident in traditional cuisine, not seen as fusty or dated as in many European countries, but essential. Naturally, this manifests in the strange and wonderful beers still made in small farmhouses around the country.
The Farmhouse Tradition
How far back does farmhouse brewing go in Lithuania? In a country where the oldest text is 500 years old, it’s hard to say. But looking at the different methods that brewers use and the styles of beer they make, one could imagine it extending back a good, long way. The Norwegian writer Lars Marius Garshol, author of Historical Brewing Techniques: The Lost Art of Farmhouse Brewing, has spent the past decade documenting their fascinating methods and beers.
Lithuanians make a range of farmhouse beers, known by the umbrella term kaimiškas alus—literally, rustic beer, or beer from the country or village. They may be pale (šviesusis) or dark (tamsusis) or made with wheat (kvietinus)—terms that also apply to commercial beers. Each brewer uses different processes adapted to their own homebreweries and often based on family tradition, and one may look very different from the one a few miles away—yet taken together, they form a coherent group. Among kaimiškas beers, there are three overlapping categories: one that Garshol calls “raw ale,” a stone-mashed beer, and a brew made from baking the mash.
Brewers everywhere, like farmers, are thrifty and pragmatic. Many of the Lithuanian country brewers make a beer without boiling the wort—therefore, “raw” ale. In the oldest version of this process, brewers heat stones and drop them in mash tuns filled with ground malt and cool water. The stones raise the temperature of the water so the malt will convert, but they also caramelize the malt on contact, adding sweetness and body. Modern farmhouse brewers still make stone beer occasionally—though now they tend to make a typical infusion mash first, adding the stones for the flavor. When I tried two examples of these beers, I found they also had hints of iron and smoke, flavors that were buffered by all the caramel sweetness. It makes for an unusual combination of flavors with its own kind of balance.
As brewers acquired metal vessels to heat water, they could mash more easily without stones—though many still skipped boiling the wort. The mash is fairly typical, although sometimes relatively long, and the wort proceeds more or less straight from lauter to fermentation. Historically, it’s unclear when hops came into the picture, but rather than spend the time and energy to build a big fire and boil all the wort, Lithuanian kaimiškas brewers developed a clever workaround: While they mash the grain, they boil hops in a small amount of water, creating a hop tea or apyny arbata. Usually brewers add the tea before fermentation, but some—wanting a stronger flavor—wait until after and blend to taste.
Perhaps the most exotic beer Lithuanians make is keptinis, whose mash is baked in ovens. Each brewery making keptinis seems to have its own variations on the method, but the process usually begins with a conventional, but thick, mash for an hour. Meanwhile, the brewer heats an oven to incredible temperatures—possibly north of 700˚F (371˚C). Brewers pack the mash into tins that look like bread pans and bake them in the oven. Just before the loaves go in, the brewer removes the fuel from the oven, so that it cools over the course of three hours. While in the oven, the mash forms a centimeter-thick, deep-brown protective crust. Beneath that crust, the firm mash becomes, in Garshol’s words, “sweet, toasted, and caramelly-sugary, with earthy, honey-like notes.” Brewers break up the loaves and create a second mash, adding hop tea as in raw ale before fermenting.
These rustic methods produce beer with a continuum of similar flavor characteristics. The beers aren’t always inflected by yeast flavors—brewers sometimes opt for using baking yeast. Rather, the focus is on the malts. The production methods, which often accentuate caramelization, create full-bodied beers that tend toward sweet notes such as toffee, chocolate, and red fruits. Brewers typically use Lithuanian commercial malts, and they have a characteristic dry-cracker or flatbread note that also appears in many lighter beers. Dark beers don’t usually feature roasted notes. Nearer to Munich dunkel, they’re made from softer, sweeter malts.
Yeast does play a role in the presence of diacetyl, which is common—in farmhouse ales and Lithuanian beers generally. Yet the level is fairly low; it’s enough to increase the impression of mouthfeel and add richness but usually lacks the more obvious buttery flavors that diacetyl creates in large quantities. The yeasts sometimes produce isoamyl acetate (banana esters) as well—one raw ale I tried looked and tasted like a hefeweizen—and this can combine with the restrained diacetyl to create a complex sweetness that’s hard to describe. One other curious fact: While the beers may taste full and sweet, those yeasts do their jobs. Farmhouse ales may finish at less than 1.004 (1˚P), completely fooling the drinker who perceives that sweetness. Yet the attenuation helps to make these beers eminently drinkable.
Finally, Lithuanians eschew fizz. I was fascinated to find, at the first pub I visited, a publican spending a huge amount of time pouring a pint. He’d already filled a glass full of foam, releasing the carbonation from the beer he was trying to pour. The beer drizzled out in a tiny stream. I saw this again and again, and I finally asked why. “It should not be foamy,” he told me, as if explaining an obvious truth to a child. Of course, the softer, sweeter palate of Lithuanian beer wouldn’t be the same with rigorous, stiff carbonation. They prefer a level nearer to cask ale, and that preserves the beer’s character. In fact, some country brewers finish fermenting their kaimiškas in casks, so that it gushes out as foam and settles into something softer and smoother.
As Lithuania’s beer scene evolves, it appears to be folding the old traditions into the new. Small breweries are starting to sprout around the country, often making pretty typical American-style craft beer. But once I ordered an IPA and received a dark mug of malty beer, full of sweet, round flavors with just a hint of hopping—quite Lithuanian, and not at all American-tasting. Later, I drank a dark lager that tasted of dark chocolate and honey.
In the local pubs—whether I was drinking keptinis at Alaus Namai, a raw ale at Šnekutis, or a craft beer at Alinė Leičiai—I always felt that I was drinking Lithuanian beer. It’s the only place on earth where that personality goes back to the way farmers make their beer, and that in turn makes Lithuania a wholly unique brewing country.