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Oakes Weekly -- August 12, 2004

Oakes Weekly August 12, 2004      
Written by Oakes

Vancouver, CANADA -

By Toronto standards, Riga is not very big. But it sure seems busier. The beer scene, however, remains as sleepy as it’s always been. It does not have, as Vilnius and Tallinn both do, a proper beer bar. It does have a brewpub - sort of - more on that later.

I stopped on my way to Riga, about 10km north of Siauliai, Lithuania, at a place called Kryziu Kalnas. It means ’Hill of Crosses’ and that’s what it is. A little hill, covered with thousands upon thousands of crosses of all shapes, sizes and designs. It’s a cultural oddity that is still only a tiny tourist trap. Anyway, it’s bloody weird, if you’re in the neighbourhood.

My first stop in Riga was Staburags, a Latvian-themed restauranat that was listed as a possible brewpub. It’s not. It’s owned by the restaurant group Lido, and they happen to have a brewery. So Lido beers appear at all the Lido restaurants. I had a traditional beer snack - fried rye bread, with garlic (the last bit being the big difference compared with the same snack in Lithuania). There was also grey peas with bacon - a tasty if greasy dish. The Lido beer was odd. It was awfully sour, but not awful. It seemed to work, and it was served at a restaurant owned by the brewer, so I can only assume that was intentional. I vowed to clarify mattters when I visited the Lido brewpub the next day.

Then it was to head off to the closest thing Riga has to a beer bar, Melnais Kakis - the Black Cat. Aldaris rules the Latvian beer scene with Lacplesis and Cesu following. They get none of the taps at the Black Cat. There are about 25-30 bottles as well, all Latvian. Melnais Kakis also boasts a huge range of beer cocktails, should the local lager not be to your taste when served neat.

One of the smaller brewers in Piebalga, and their Minhauzena Alus is a well-structured lager but Latvians like their beer on the sweeter side of things, so this one falls a dozen IBUs short of reaching its potential.

In the Old Town, Alus Seta is another Lido joint, and I had their honey beer Medalus. Strangely, a beer tent in the Old Town - the Piebalga tent at the corner of Leipu and Mestaru - has 18 taps, which is the most I’ve seen anywhere in the Baltics. Sure, they’re not all that good, but in such a touristy place such a selection really isn’t needed so it was nice to see.

The next day I set off to visit the main Lido brewpub. All my sources had the address as 76 Krasta Iela. So that’s where I went. There must, however, be more than one Krasta Iela because the one I walked down - and a fine stretch of ghettopia it was - featured a vacant lot where 76 should have been. Silly me. Well, I cut my losses, and thus never sampled that sour lager on it’s home turf nor got any chance to question the brewmaster.

I mostly just scooped bottles to sample on the ferry to the Ratebeer European Summer Party.

As a postscript, though, I should note that as unknown as the beer scene is in Poland and the Baltics, the cheese scene is even more unknown. I found delicious oscypek in Krakow and a few above-average supermarket cheeses as well. At the central market in Riga - one of the finest markets I’ve ever seen - I found a wonderful, spongey, smoky, caraway-laced cheese with strong woody notes. It tasted like they took curds, hand-moulded them added caraway seeds and baked them over a wood fire. I don’t even know what it was called, as it wasn’t labelled. So if anybody has ever seen a place where Baltic cheeses are written about, I’d love to know because this was one of the best cheeses I’ve ever had and only one of the dozens of cheese shops in the market carried it.


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start quote A little hill, covered with thousands upon thousands of crosses of all shapes, sizes and designs. It’s a cultural oddity that is still only a tiny tourist trap. end quote