Everywhere in the world craft beers are re-gaining popularity. People are fed up with the many traditional brands, that messed up their original recipes to make more money. But in the small country of Lithuania, people were way ahead of this so-called Craft Beer Revolution. Their centuries old homebrew culture never left. Not even when the Communists took over in 1940 and nationalized the beer industry. The old recipes lived on in the underground scene and are popular to this very day. So not only do Lithuanian farmhouse ales taste completely different than any common beer style, for the habitants of the Baltic country they are a symbol of national pride and independence.
The fact that Lithuania managed to hold on to their special beer culture is impressive, since they are the only country that was once part of the Soviet Union. As a result of the famous Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact the three Baltic States Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were annexated by the USSR in 1940 and it took over 50 years till the Lithuanians got their independence back. The frst Communist ruler Jozef Stalin was a great drinks enthousiast, but apparently not familiar with or fond of craft beers. All existing breweries were nationalized and beer was made after standard recipes.
These measures were a lethal blow for the beer scene in many countries in Eastern Europe, especially in the USSR. But the beer culture in Lithuania was too strong to break. Another popular historical example is when the city of Biržai was completely demolished by the Swedes in 1704, the first thing to be rebuilt was the local brewery. Apparently the castle, the church and the school were less of a priority at the time. That beer-loving spirit kept the brew culture going during the Communist oppression. Even though homebrewing was illegal, people still made their own traditional ales in the Lithuanian countryside.
This is still the heart of the homebrew culture nowadays. Especially the countryside in the north of Lithuania produces some great farmhouse ales. The thrilling thing about these beers is that they are completely different than the stouts and pale ales that pop up in micro-breweries all over the world as part of the Craft Beer Revolution. That’s because the Lithuanian brewers use recipes and methods to make beer that are long forgotten in most parts of Europe, if they ever existed. And after 50 years in the underground scene these beer makers know how to keep a secret.
However we do know some things. The most eye-catching ingredient of this Kaimiškas Alus (village beer) is without a doubt the mysterious yeast, which is traditionally kept in wells by the villagers. Where most brewers usually filter the yeast out before bottling their beer, the Lituanians usually leave it in as a ‘living ingredient’. This fact came in handy when a group of beer fanatics needed a yeast sample to give to the GenBank database of the National Center for Biotechnology Information in the United States. To everyone’s surprise there was not a single match. Experts now believe the Lithuanian yeast is probably a whole new species.
A second remarkable thing is that many farmhouse brews are not even boiled. Because of this fact the beers can’t be kept for too much time, but it does give them a rare flavour. As do unusual ingredients like peas, clovers or raspberry leaves. Another popular thing to do is to bake a sort of bread from the malt and mash that into the beer (Keptinis Alus) or boil the wort by throwing in hot stones. And since almost every brewer grows his own hops and malt and keeps his own yeast, we are dealing with real traditional local products, perfected by over 1.000 years of craftmanship.
Village Beer in the City
And unless you enjoy roaming the countryside in search of that rare unknown farmhouse ale, we have more good news. Many pubs in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius have embraced the national treasure. It’s absolutely not difficult to find a large variety of amazing craft beers from the countryside, so you better give them a try, į sveikatą!
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