One of the seminal moments in my beerhunting career thus far was my arrival at Baras Alaus Kelias in Pasvalys, Lithuania. I’d been driven there by little more than a hunch. In planning the European portion of my Warsaw-Bangkok trip I decided to test a theory I had – a theory with very little basis for existing – that there were traditional craft beers in Lithuania.
I talked with Per Samuelsson (omhper) about it and we did some homework and compared notes. It appeared that there were small towns in the north of that country with several breweries each. So we decided to investigate. After three days of more or less fruitless searching, we arrived in Pasvalys. Kelias was our first stop. There they were – 11 Lithuanian craft brews, from several area brewers.
What we found when we started tasting them was that they were nothing like any other beers we’d ever tasted before. Normally, craft beers around the world can be slotted into a familiar style. This is because they are often at least based on a familiar style. Throughout Asia I encountered craft brews in the German tradition. Fair enough. But these Lithuanian beers were nothing like that. They were entirely unique. Words in the English beer lexicon had not yet been developed to describe them. I eventually settled for slotting them into “traditional ale” on Ratebeer with the sahtis and gruits but I’m not entirely comfortable with this.
But it raised a bigger issue. A few days later I had some microbrews from the Basque country in France. I thought they were off – way too tart. Per told me that a lot of French microbrews have that character. I don’t have a ton of experience with French micros but with what I’ve tasted, and with what I can read from guys with more experience in French beer than myself is that the French don’t do the beer style thing any more than the Lithuanians do. Their beers march to the beat of their own drummer. You could even argue that the Belgians do as well, though with the emergence of witbier, tripel and a few other highly popular styles, I suspect Belgian beer is becoming less geared to esoterica and heading towards a greater embracing of styles.
Yet later in the trip, I had the good fortune of coming across some Russian microbrews. Certain ones, like at the Joker Bar in Kazan’, are German in style. But others, such as Kroft Old from Nizhny Novgorod and the beers of the Vasileostrovskoye micro in St. Petersburg, are pretty far from any style we in North America would recognize. They’re lagers, but really funky unclean ones. Deliberately, and successfully.
This wasn’t all. I’ve talked once or twice about Soviet-style lager. This abomination is not only distinctive but is also a hundred miles from any style we’ve classified. While in theory pale lagers, those beers aren’t trying to be Budweiser any more than they are trying to be Orval. Then there were the tart beers from the Tunuk-Bulak micro in Kyrgyzstan, and my theory that the tartness was deliberate given that the brewer’s hometown of Jalal-Abad has hardly any Russians and the traditional Central Asian alcoholic beverages are all tart.
Aside from the French beers, there is a common thread here. Until I went and found these beers, nobody’s ever really written about them. There is no mutual knowledge between these beer scenes and the beer scenes we know and love. Jackson’s style writings are unknown, the influence of the American beer business non-existent.
We’ve always classified the beer world according to whichever version of the Anglo-American style framework we use. These frameworks have done a pretty good job of incorporating German and Belgian beers, and many other types from Europe as well. But they don’t cover the whole world. Good luck finding a BJCP writer who’s been to Pakruojis, or suffered through a half-dozen different Zhigulevskoyes. The big beer publications don’t break this kind of ground.
Well, here it is. There are entire beer scenes out there that exist 100% free of Western influence. Yeah, I’d put the French in there as well. Just look at Bière de Garde as an example of their dedication to fixed beer styles. It may be something put on beer labels, but it’s not a style. Not with that much variation.
We need to take a good, hard look at how we classify these beers. We can’t shoehorn them into beer styles because the notion is unknown to the brewers and drinkers of these lands. I will be dealing this in the coming weeks.
And here’s the kicker. This is important. As addicted to the notion of style that American brewers are, we all know that American brewers - and any brewer in any other country that is influenced by American brewers – are just as apt to throw out the style book as they are to brew to style. You and I both know that a lot of US brewers build their beer based more on characteristics they seek than on style replication. Oh yeah, and these are the most influential brewers out there, too. If there’s one thing I’ve seen this year it’s that the influence of the boldest, bravest brewers is starting to trickle down to the “local brewpub” level. Brewers who’ve spent their whole careers brewing in a tight Blonde-Amber-Brown-IPA-Porter paradigm are becoming emancipated from their mental shackles and giving all kinds of things a go.
So how we approach the non-style beers from beer cultures we’ve not yet influenced will tell us how to approach our own beers as non-style beers become more readily available, more bizarre and reach into the craft beer mainstream.