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Oakes Weekly - January 13, 2005
Traditional Lithuanian Brewing
January 13, 2005
Written by Oakes
In Lithuania, the town of Birzai is synonymous with beer. Wherever you go, if you start talking about beer, the locals start talking about Birzai. Even Lithuanians living in North America, who have scarcely visited their homeland know that Birzai=beer. However, it is my distinct impression that Birzai is to Lithuania what Munich is to Bavaria – historical reputation, larger breweries and only a hint of traditional style. But allow me to backtrack a bit and tell you about this beer-soaked (literally) day.
This takes place last July, in between <a hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/Story.asp?StoryID=354>Pasvalys and <a hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/Story.asp?StoryID=356>Pakruojis in my travelogues. Per and I, feeling the effects of our discovery of Lithuanian traditional beer at <a hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/Places/ShowPlace.asp?PlaceID=1866>Alaus Baras Kelias, arrived at the Pasvalys bus station to make the short trip north to Birzai. At the bus station, there is a pub – one of the few crappy ones in the region. But with a half-hour to kill, I went to the far end of the station to check out <a hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/Places/ShowPlace.asp?PlaceID=3791>another pub. Gold mine! Six more traditional beers on tap. The small, dark, smokey bar was populated with a handful of elderly men and one non-English-speaking barmistress. The high strength of these beers is perfect for washing away your hangover.
We arrived in Birzai and eventually found the hotel, on the edge of town. There is only one hotel in Birzai. As we were loading our bags in our room, the manager said “You’re lucky. It’s the only one we have left...”
Okay, fair enough, I thought. “…because of the beer festival,” he continued. Pardon me? Come again? Did you say ‘beer festival’? Needless to say, thirty minutes later Per and I were walking through the gates of the Birzai Beer Festival. It had just opened so nobody was there yet. Only four of the reportedly seven local breweries were in attendance – <a hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/Ratings/Beer/ShowBrewer.asp?BrewerID=4930>Rinkuskiai, <a hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/Ratings/Beer/ShowBrewer.asp?BrewerID=4715>Birzu Alus, <a hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/Ratings/Beer/ShowBrewer.asp?BrewerID=4940>Ponoras and <a hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/Ratings/Beer/ShowBrewer.asp?BrewerID=4941>Dalitas. Only the lightest brands were present, and the price was double the going rate for beer in the region (a criminal $0.80 per half a litre).
We were enjoying some of the <a hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/Beer/Dalitas-Granto/36855/>Granto from the Dalitas Brewery (we later found a much stronger, darker <a hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/Beer/Dalitas-Granto-Stiprus/36877/>Granto as well) when a huge bang was heard. The whole festival looked over to the corner, where at a display of traditional brewing, a wooden cask had fallen from its stillage. A geyser was in full bloom and the poor brewer was getting himself completely soaked trying to re-insert the wooden spile. Needless to say, my camera was not handy.
The traditional brewing display included a cauldron over a wood-fire, just like that traditionally used in maple syrup production. Hops are added whole. The brew is filtered through straw before fermentation. Otherwise, most of the steps are the same for any brewing, so I’ll let the pictures tell you about the equipment.
<IMG border=0 SRC=/images/features/BirzaiBrewKettle.jpg><p align=center> Birzai brew kettle</p>
<IMG border=0 SRC=/images/features/BirzaiTechnique1.jpg><p align=center> In goes the liquor</p>
<IMG border=0 SRC=/images/features/BirzaiTechnique.jpg>
<IMG border=0 SRC=/images/features/FiltrationBirzaiStyle.jpg><p align=center>More filtration as it enters the cask</p>
<IMG border=0 SRC=/images/features/OakesOmhper.jpg><p align=center> Trying to decide which barrel to take home</body></p>
The beer? Soft, sweet, frothy and delicious. Mildly honeyish maltiness and slightly leafy hop notes. Low carbonation – thoroughly refreshing. The brewer said it wasn’t ready yet, but I loved it.
We then headed on some brewery tours – Rinkuskiai and Birzu Alus. Rinkuskiai started out tiny, but 13 years later is the #5 brewer in Lithuania. Their <a hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/Beer/Rinkuškiai-Biržieciu-Stiprusis/36768/>Birzeciu Stiprusis brand offers a hint of traditional flavour, but many of their other brands do not.
Birzu Alus is the nation’s oldest brewery, and still retains their Soviet-era equipment (though they don’t brew with it anymore). Their biggest brands are <a hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/Beer/Birž&371;-Miežinis/36773/>Miezinis and <a hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/Beer/Birž&371;-Širvenos/36772/>Sirvenos. The latter is a source of confusion. I’d read that sirvenos was a traditional style of beer made with peas. The good folks at Birzu Alus clarified this. Sirvenos is a brand name, and while peas are used in some brews, Birzu Alus confirmed that there are strictly an adjunct – a sugar source – and that there is nothing traditional about it and they use them for dark or strong beers to boost the alcohol.
<IMG border=0 SRC=/images/features/BirzuAlusSoviet.jpg><p align=center> Soviet-era equipment at Birzu Alus</p>
The pubs in Birzai, generally speaking, stock beers from the big two local brewers, but with a little hunting we were still able to find some more traditional brews, plus the brewery tap for Ponoras, which we found only half an hour before it closed. I should mention that for those who find English pubs’ closing hours annoying, the north of Lithuania will be even worse as most places close between 8 and 10pm. That said, the standard opening time is between 6-8am, so at least you can get an early start. Given the strength and drinkability of these beers, you could actually drink all morning, sleep all afternoon and get up and still have time for a full evening session.
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