Despite the seemingly unassailable wave of “innovation” among beers and brewers today, I’m often left missing the buzz of sampling for the first time the native beer traditions of lands near and far, experiences which continue to inspire and fuel my relationship with John Barleycorn today.
Back then descriptions in books, mainly those by pioneering “Beer Hunter” Michael Jackson, sparked my enthusiasm and over time, often with considerable effort, I came to try most of the world’s “traditional” beers, however obscure, often at source. Every discovery brought fresh revelation and sometimes disappointment but each helped broaden my knowledge and appreciation of the brewer’s art, in all its forms.
These days, the flood of American-style IPAs, barrel-aged Imperial stouts, hit-or-miss hybrid styles and endless novelty beers featuring unusual (and sometimes absurd) ingredients rarely give me the same thrill, though I make an exception for new sour beers, which tend at least to be idiosyncratic if not always wildly successful. There are a few notable old or revived historical styles I haven’t yet tried, such as community-brewed zoigl in the Oberpfalz region of Bavaria (I’ve tried commercial versions) and the salty-sour gose from eastern Germany (I’ve tried several facsimiles from elsewhere), and I wish I’d been able to track down the last original Grodziskie before it disappeared. I’d even welcome the chance to sample a traditional English “cock ale” of the kind that always seemed to be in home brewing books when I was a youth, i.e. a beer made using the carcass of a chicken to add character, if anyone made one. Yes. Really. Nonetheless, true beer discovery felt like it ended for me a long time ago and was unlikely to happen again.
That changed after picking up a remaindered copy of Stephen Beaumont and Tim Webb’s handy Pocket Beer Book 2014 (in effect a revival of Michael Jackson’s similarly-named series) a while back. Working my way steadily through I reached the entry for the Baltic nation of Lithuania and instantly had the smell of yeast, malt and hops in my nostrils. Lithuania, it turns out, is home to a remarkable beer survival. Not just of a beer or a brewery but of a whole, largely obscure, beer culture: that of kaimiškas alus, or “rustic beers”, in the northern highlands. These beers are not just small-scale versions of mainstream international products but often feature rustic ingredients and artisan approaches that defy simple stylistic categorisation. Beaumont and Webb highlight beers made from bread, use of open fermenters, filtering through raspberry bush branches, hops added as an infusion, and use of ingredients such hemp, roasted hazelnuts and honey. It’s not even clear whether these whether many of these beers should be described as ales or lagers, the yeasts are so unusual. Soviet-era indifference, lack of investment and protection from modernity undoubtedly helped protect this culture. But perhaps more remarkable is its survival in an era of EU membership, rapid commercial and technological development and increasing international homogeneity.
I have no idea how long this survival has been appreciated beyond Lithuania itself – the aforementioned Mr Jackson doesn’t seem to have been aware of it for instance – and not a lot has been written about Lithuanian beer culture in English (although see here and here for useful intros and Norwegian blogger Lars Marius Garshol’s excellent English language site here). It’s also clear that these beers rarely journey beyond their home country. Or even their home region. Online retailer Beers Of Europe occasionally has supplies from breweries such as Butautų and Kupiškėnų, but they’re not regular. Even a trip to the sizeable Lithuanian supermarket Lituanica in Beckton, East London failed to yield results as the company seems, perhaps surprisingly, not to sell alcohol, though it does sell numerous variants of gira, the Lithuanian version of that eastern European near-beer, kvass. Otherwise there’s are few signs of Lithuanian rustic beers in the UK. Still, this is genuinely exciting stuff for a jaded old beer bore such as myself but and with return flights from London to Vilnius costing as little as £70 and guided tours of the highland region available for around £100, Lithuania’s rustic beers may not elude me for much longer.