by Kate Masters
There is a nascent craft brewing scene in Lithuania. Vilnius, its capital, is home to a handful of microbreweries and pubs where you can find an eclectic mix of beers. When I visited in August, I tasted Lithuanian IPAs, porters and lagers, including an amber brewed with hemp seeds, a common ingredient in traditional Lithuanian cuisine. Nearly 30 years after breaking away from the Soviet Union, the country is leaning west, embracing the same craft trend that’s taken root all over the world.
And sure, it’s nice for Lithuania that global beer styles are becoming more widely available. But for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, imported brews were nearly unheard of in the southernmost Baltic state.
Part of that is history. Like its neighbors, Estonia and Latvia, Lithuania spent most of the 20th century under occupation by various foreign powers — first the Soviet Union, then Nazi Germany, then the Soviet Union again. Under Soviet rule, Western imports were tightly regulated and the economy was collectivized, creating a less-than-ideal environment for entrepreneurial brewers.
But an even bigger facet is that, for years, most brewers in Lithuania didn’t feel the need to mimic outside beer styles. Much like Belgium or Germany, the country has its own distinct brewing tradition and a unique national preference for what a beer should be. That’s according to Lars Marius Garshol, a Norwegian native who’s spent the last eight years studying traditional Lithuanian brewing and has literally written the book on it. “Lithuanian Beer: A Rough Guide” (completed with help from native brewer and beer blogger Martynas Savickis) is one of the few English-language resources available to anyone interested in the country’s unique brewing traditions.
As Garshol explained in his introduction, the most traditional Lithuanian beer is farmhouse beer, crafted for generations by families in tiny breweries across the country. Of course, you can find industrial lagers exported from major companies like Svyturys or Volfas Engelman. But to get a true sense of the distinctive qualities that make a Lithuanian beer, well, Lithuanian, you have to try brews that have been made with the same ingredients and techniques for centuries.
For example, Garshol said, farmhouse brews are slightly sweet and lower in carbonation, and have a much lower hops profile than most contemporary beers. The alcohol by volume is lower because they were designed to be enjoyed over long stretches of time—during weddings, at funerals, or even throughout the day if you were a farmer or a laborer in the Lithuanian countryside.
More specifically, farmhouse beers can be broken down into two main categories, Garshol said. There’s an eastern varietal, called keptinis, and a western varietal known as kaimiškas alus. Where the two really differ is in the methods used to make them. Beers that fall under the kaimiškas alus umbrella are typically paler and low in carbonation, but they’re also typically made “raw”—the wort isn’t boiled before it’s fermented.
“You do a normal mash at a warmer temperature, and then you run off the wort, you cool it, and you pitch the yeast,” Garshol said. “So, it gives a fuller mouthfeel because the protein isn’t boiled out.”
Just as interesting is keptinis, a form of kaimiškas alus that’s more common in the east. The beer can trace its origins to the ovens found in traditional Lithuanian homes. These ovens were huge brick structures that could measure as much as 6 feet high and 9 feet deep.
Farmhouse brewers use the oven to bake their mash for several hours, caramelizing the sugars and ultimately producing a dark, toasty beer. It’s a distinctly different process than the one used to make porters and stouts, which involves toasting the malts before making the mash.
“When you do that, you’re toasting starch,” Garshol said. “But these Lithuanian brewers mashed first, so they’re toasting sugar. So, you could basically say there’s two types of dark beer. There’s keptinis, and there’s all the others.”
Ingredients play a role, too. Head to certain farmhouse breweries, or a well-stocked bar like Bambalynė, and you might be able to taste pea beer—herbal and delicate, with good foam and a soft mouthfeel.There’s some evidence that Lithuanian brewers have used peas for generations, but the practice became especially prominent in the Soviet era, when periodic malt shortages meant state brewers had to improvise.
While farmhouse breweries play an outsize role in Lithuania’s cultural heritage, their actual presence is dwindling, Garshol said. In the years since Lithuania gained independence from the Soviet Union, the number of operations has shrunk from 200, at a minimum, to roughly 10—not counting larger, regional breweries that rely less on traditional methods.
There are some new companies interested in carrying on the country’s brewing traditions. At Dundulis, a craft brewery in Panevėžys, the brewmaster collects native hops and experiments with his own keptinis, Garshol said. Some smaller breweries create beers that—while not quite traditional—are still uniquely Lithuanian in terms of flavor and ingredients. But there’s also concern among farmhouse brewers that the craft beer scene could wipe out native practices.
“I think a lot of Lithuanians see farmhouse brewing as old-fashioned—that Lithuania should move forward and become more Western and more like the modern world,” Garshol said. “And of course, there’s been some worries over whether this is going to kill off the more Lithuanian-style beer. But I guess the jury is still out on that. We really just don’t know.”