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Oakes Weekly -- July 22, 2004
Warsaw to Bangkok, part two: Vilnius, Kaunas, Panevezys
July 22, 2004
Written by Oakes
Well, let me first state that I did find another Polish porter, Strzelec, from the local Krakow brewer of the same name. Not long afterward, I departed for Vilnius. Barely. I had purchased my bus ticket online, and the people running the actual bus would not honour it. Even their head office told me where to go. In the end I had to pay cash, as there were no other options to Vilnius and the hostel where I’d been staying was booked solid. You can bet I’ll be talking to Mastercard though, about that online ticket. Eurolines Polska has some explaining to do.
At the Lithuanian border, I had a chance encounter with a squatter. No, not someone camped out in an abandoned building but a squat toilet. Except that it was non-functioning and thus piled with filth. Which would explain why it looked as though people had been using the urinals as their all-function facilities. There was nothing I could do - I left. Not such a good introduction to what is actually a very charming country.
My first stop in Vilnius was the brewpub Avilys, where I met Per (omhper), who would be beer-touring Lithuania with me. The first beer I had was Avilio a somewhat free-style pale lager. I loved it. The honey beer, of which they are especially proud, unfortunately was less successful to my palate.
Vilnius also has a beer bar called Tiffany Pub, whose owners we would later meet in Birzai. In the cellar they have about 100 beers, mainly Lithuanian, but with a couple of Latvian and Russian thrown in. We sampled a few of these. Birzeciu Stiprusis, from the Rinkuskiai Brewery, was a decent strong dark lager, a hint of what was to come. The entertainment for the evening came in the form of a bar fight.
The next day in Kaunas, we chased some wild geese. In preparation for the trip, we had scoured all the resources we could find. Beerme.com listed several breweries in Kaunas. The branch of Avilys was legit, but the others were stores, people’s houses and the like. The city itself is of a good size, but is very sleepy, like a small town. It sits at the junction of two rivers, has an old town and a long pedestrian mall. The result - only a handful of bars. We tried some more macros and headed back to the flat we’d rented to pop a few more. Amongst these was the re-discovery of an old friend - Soviet style lager. In Lithuania, this means the Lokys Brewery.
For those who’ve never had the pleasure, Soviet-style lager is a unique breed. My first experience with this came in Estonia in 1998 - I was a bit of a latecomer as these breweries had finally mastered the vexing problem of floaties. But the other problems - too numerous to list here - still remain to this day. Soviet-style beer is much harder to find these days, and few drinkers in the modern Baltics are nostalgic for this distinctive taste.
To start with, there’s the appearance. To use the word flat would only be partially correct. To use the word dun would only tell a little bit of the story. If Orval is a peacock in full bloom, then Soviet-style lager is a dead pigeon on the side of the road. And remember - this is after solving the "floaties problem".
Soviet-era breweries were not using the most modern of equipment. This, of course, can be a very good thing. In fact, in the case of one Soviet lager, Bavaria Svetloe from St. Petersburg, I think that the house character adds to the beer. But most of the house character ranges from vegetal to sewagey to sour. Oh, and did I mention that a few Soviet-style lagers, including those from Lokys, have more diacetyl than the doctored "diacetyl" beer they use to train beer judges and brewery tasters.
In all, a few decent beers, a bunch of not-so-awesome ones, and it was off to Panevezys. We were generally under the impression that the only brewery in town was Kalnapilis. Now, after tasting many of their brands, I can say that they’re probably the best of Lithuania’s macrobrewers. However, the crux of the situation was that we felt it was too late in the day to move onwards, to we grabbed a pile of bottles at the store and that was that.
Well, not before visiting the Kalnapilis brewery tap. Except that the "tap" was just a store. Yippedy-doo. Across the road, however, was a beautiful stone pub with a leafy courtyard. Nothing wrong with that. So in we go.
I spied with my little eye something I really liked. An unfamiliar tap handle with the words "tradicinis alus". Oh hell yes. Problem was, they blew the keg the day before and didn’t have any more kegs on hand. Such a tease. We’d found ’tradicinis alus’ and we were sure that it wasn’t made by Kalnapilis. Yet, it was from Panevezys. We made a mental note to hit this pub on our way back from the far north of Lithuania. By the time that day came, we couldn’t be bothered. There was simply no need...
Continued next week
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Soviet-style lagers, including those from Lokys, have more diacetyl than the doctored "diacetyl" beer they use to train beer judges and brewery tasters.
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