Off the plane from Nuremberg we call for a taxi and head into old town Vilnius. We dropped our bags and sorted our bearings for the city before stepping out into the afternoon. Just around the corner is a bar named Bambalyne, a bar that specializes in the lesser-known countryside beers of Lithuania.
We started with Kupiškio Keptinis, a 5.7% rustic rye farmhouse house ale that showed an ester spark and a grainy, wholesome baked bread malt character with a touch of basement must yeastiness. Taruškų Naujas Alus Ainių, our next sample, is a 5% semi-hoppy farmhouse ale that emitted a strange – but still palatable – raw vegetable leafiness. From there began a series of poor showings, many DMS-heavy beers with a raw, wort-like malt character and sometimes indescribable brewing flaws.
Is it fair to call these beers flawed?
So you have a wall full of bottles, the variety of country beers, few recognizable, almost none of them exported. You have your pick of them but if you’re not a fan of that concord grape jelly dark malt extract syrup flavor, you might be in for some tough going. One beer smelled like fried chicken batter. Another of ketchup and lettuce. Another of popcorn and boiled turnips. The DMS would shapeshift in a glass from cabbage to carrots to radishes.
The traditional country beers of Lithuania are delicate and fragile products, not suited for shipment or storage, but intended to be had as fresh as possible. You see mention of Gyvas Alus, which translates to live beer. These beers are unpasteurized and naturally-carbonated in the bottle. From a gravity keg they are the Lithuanian equivalent of real ale.
High-attenuation saccharomyces strains, local ingredients and local brewing traditions (some brewers don’t boil) give Lithuanian Alus a character unique to the region. What can be said of the Germans is that they pursue bright, clean lagers. Czech beer is known for savory Moravian barley and soft water. For Belgians it could be high fermentation yeast. So what is an equivalent descriptor of the farmhouse beers of Lithuania? Raw and grainy highly attenuated malt with relatively high levels of DMS and low, natural carbonation? At least it’s comforting to learn that real ale in Lithuania is as fragile as real ale in England. Still the raw wortiness is something the local drinkers find desirable.
We returned to Bambalyne for a few more night caps. Down the narrow brick staircase the underground setting is cozy. It’s honestly one of the most characterful places in the entire word to drink beer. If only the beer were worth drinking. I took a spot in a plush red chair next to a dingy fish tank to escape the concentrated body heat in the bricked back room. Vertically, the room is only two steps higher on the floorplan, but that is enough distance to trap the thermal energy of an annoying stag party.
Lithuanian Beer Styles
Before this trip, I had a rough picture of what I should look for in Lithuanian beer, from Ratebeer user reviews and Martin Thibault’s Lithuania summaries on Les Coureurs des Boires. The two main styles of beer here are Šviesus (pronounced SHVE-sus, sometimes times written Šviesusis), the pale style of Lithuanian country beer, and Tamsus (Tamsusis), the dark. There are a few other semi-styles made here, such as Keptinis, which includes rye and other grains, many times in the form of leftover breads. These beers, as you may guess, are very grainy and to me appear raw.
The term Gyvas Alus refers to the natural carbonation of such-labeled beers. This is the equivalent to real ale, which the British know well. As such, carbonation is very low, but acid is also very low in many traditional Lithuanian beers. I say traditional to exclude the widely-sold, factory-produced pale lagers that exist in nearly every country in the world. This low acidity combined with the raw grain character leaves many beers feeling very limp, soggy, watery, etc. Lithuanian yeast strains are very vigorous in devouring available sugar, and the final gravity of these beers is lower than what you find elsewhere in the world with isolated or similarly controlled and engineered yeast strains. Overall you have drier fermentation relative to the rest of the work, but a stronger wort-like under-fermented flavor and aroma profile. DMS manifests as a cooked / boiled carrot, cabbage, lettuce and turnip smell and flavor, and was common in what we sampled. Bad Tamsus smells like cheap apple and concord grape jelly. Diacetyl was preasant as well, and some bottle were expired and oxidized, so you can forgive some of these beer for not holding up. One Tamsus smelled like greasy, oily chicken nuggets, I kid you not. I haven’t eaten a chicken nugget in 15 years but the smell is unmistakable.
A break was needed so it was decided that a walk to the open market would do us good. It was the evening, we could look for a restaurant, and on the way eat jerky and confections and sample new beer from the market stalls. Five booths in attendance, one of them proudly pouring bottles of Jovaru Alus with a Ratebeer best-of from 9 years ago sticker printed on the label (which is actually from Josh Oakes‘ own personal best-of-year list Ratebeer article). The best of the lot at the street market was a honey-amber beer that tasted like sugar water.
By the next afternoon, after six more poor bottles and finding draft beer no better, we threw in the towel. We booked flights to Helsinki for three nights to make use of our travel time in a more enjoyable way.
The Baltic States are largely considered part of Eastern Europe (a term which is interpreted different ways by different people) and/or part of Northern Europe with the Scandinavian countries. If I don’t count Hungary, the Slovak Republic and the Czech Republic (which is further along in its westernization), then Lithuania could be considered my first visit to Eastern Europe. Regardless of which is correct, this trip is my first time visiting a former republic of the Soviet Union.