The Fight to Save Lithuanian Farmhouse Beer

August 16, 2018

By Stephanie Vermillion, August 16, 2018

After twists and wrong turns through the hills of northern Lithuania’s beer country, I find myself face to face with the esteemed brewer I’ve spent months researching: Aldona Udriene, the 70-year-old “Queen of Lithuanian Farmhouse Brewing.”

Having grown up in a Lithuanian household, I’m well aware this culture breeds strong women, but nothing could prepare me for Udriene’s tenacious personality. This is a woman who survived a gas explosion and a subsequent coma during primary school— followed by a shipwreck and plane crash—and laughs when telling the tales.

My beer-enthusiast family and I have stopped by to try her ales, share a traditional Easter meal and swap Lithuanian stories. But, if I’ve learned anything through my years of Lithuanian get-togethers, “quick” and “visit” should never be in the same sentence.

Five hours and three courses later, the conversation (translated through my fluent mother) shifts. The jovial Udriene stops with her hourly toast of “I sveikata!” and her smile fades as she shares the issues plaguing Jovaru Alus, her family’s traditional farmhouse brewery. Despite accolades and honors, Udriene’s lifeblood is struggling with contemporary competition. But it wasn’t always this way.

Stephanie Vermillion

Udriene’s grandfather founded Jovaru Alus 140 years ago; since then, it has remained a small backyard farmhouse brewery serving the local community of Jovarai. Udriene’s grandfather rose to relative fame with his rare, signature yeast strain—found in the local forest, and which Udriene uses to this day—and built a name for himself among local beer lovers.

“When a man died, they wouldn’t go to the priest first. They’d visit the brewery to make sure my grandfather had beer ready,” she says.

Jovaru Alus follows the traditional Lithuanian farmhouse brewing method, which Udriene is fighting hard to preserve. The authentic farmhouse style was passed down from one generation to the next in a process that’s quite different from today’s mainstream brewing methods.

True to their name, authentic farmhouse ales are brewed in a farmhouse. (Udriene’s brewery is in her backyard.) Some larger and more modern breweries have adopted a farmhouse style, but according to traditionalists, it’s not authentically a “farmhouse ale” unless it’s actually brewed there.

Lithuanian farmhouse beers are often described as “raw” or “earthy” in style. The wort, which comes from two high-heat mashes, is never boiled; the hops are boiled separately, almost like tea, and added to the wort. The two high-heat mashes actually pasteurize the wort, and once the wort cools, brewers add the yeast. This process keeps all proteins from the malts in the beer and gives farmhouse ale a uniquely sweet flavor, although there’s very little sugar in the beer. Since the brewing style puts farmhouse beers in the “raw ale” category, the product has a shorter shelf life and needs to be consumed as quickly as possible.

Like Udriene herself, farmhouse brewing has survived a series of hardships. The tradition endured through post-World War II Soviet occupation from 1944 to 1991; during these tough years, the state took over all commercial breweries, replacing taps with six ill-tasting, cheap recipes. Given the low quality of those beers, homebrewers became more important than ever. They changed their business strategy, brewing solely for weddings and celebrations until Lithuania gained independence, according to Deep Baltic.

Udriene first learned about beer at the age of four, under Soviet occupation. She fondly remembers helping her father brew for local weddings and burying yeast to keep it alive through the winter. After four decades of working with him, she took over as head brewer of Jovaru Alus to carry on her family legacy.

Once in charge, Udriene worked hard to obtain a license for the brewery; under new regulations set in April 1995, it was illegal to brew without a license. From there, things took off wildly—until they didn’t.

“Little by little we grew, like a bird building its nest. 1998 was the best year; we brewed and sold almost all of our beer,” she says. “After that, competition started to increase.”

Stephanie Vermillion

Despite financial hardships due to a shifting beer culture and stricter regulations (including Lithuania banning alcohol ads and raising the drinking age from 18 to 20), Udriene has kept Jovaru Alus, and Lithuanian farmhouse brewing traditions, on the map. She’s attended beer festivals in New York and Philadelphia on behalf of the brewery, and earned accolades from beer experts internationally, including second place for Rate Beer’s Lager of the Year in 2004. Some of her most popular beers include Jovaru (a traditional lager that follows her grandfather’s recipe) and the Jovaru honey flavor, which is slightly sweeter.

Although she reigns in the Lithuanian farmhouse beer scene, she’s hardly alone. Other Lithuanian brewers and beer enthusiasts far and wide are trying to preserve farmhouse traditions alongside her.

Simonas Gutautas, a brewer at Dundulis in Panevėžys, Lithuania, is studying traditional brewing methods and recipes to continue the farmhouse legacy through his own brews. Unlike many farmhouse breweries, Dundulis is unique in that it brews authentic traditional farmhouse ales as well as contemporary beer like IPAs and stouts.

Brewer Vykintas Motuza collects old brewing gear and donates it to people who want to start creating their own farmhouse ales; he even shares his own farmhouse yeast to help them get started.

And Lars Marius, a longtime Lithuanian beer expert and author, writes regularly about local farmhouse ales to maintain awareness for the tradition; he’s also collecting literature for translation and yeast for analysis to understand and preserve the practice.

Unfortunately, while documenting Lithuania’s brew scene, Marius has uncovered major shifts in the country’s beer culture—and they don’t bode well for Udriene and her fellow farmhouse brewers.

“The biggest change [in the Lithuanian beer scene] is the slow disappearance of farmhouse breweries, and the appearance of U.S.-style craft breweries making IPAs and porters,” Marius says. “Ten years ago the Lithuanian beer scene was completely isolated, with almost no influence from outside. Now, the beer scene looks more ‘normal.’”

Tadas Gegevicius, a brewer from Leičiai who works with Lithuanian beer bars like Bambalyne, agrees.

“The beer market is going down every year in Lithuania,” he says. “At the end of the 90s we had 300 local breweries, but then big international breweries bought out small shops. Now we have 100. Another main problem is these farmhouse brewers have poor distribution systems in the countryside and towns. Bigger breweries are easier to access, and therefore more popular for younger generations.”

While Udriene attributes slow sales to the presumption that, among other things, young Lithuanians “only care about cheap beer,” Gegevicius disagrees. Young Lithuanians, particularly those in urban areas like capital city Vilnius, have more beer options than ever.

“In the countryside, young people may prefer cheap beer, but in cities and towns they have many different choices,” he says. “The general tendency is that younger people prefer beer over liquor drinks, but the types they’re interested in vary from traditional pilsners to extreme beers like sour IPAs or gruit stouts.”

Stephanie Vermillion

The future of Lithuania’s farmhouse beer keeps Udriene up at night, but the root of the problem is something that makers of traditional food and drink face across the globe: Younger generations simply don’t seem interested in carrying on those practices.

“My son and grandson finished brewery courses, but they don’t have passion for it anymore,” she says, with tears welling up in her eyes “It feels like I have to carry this business like a cross, but who will I give it to later?”

Udriene has explored selling her yeast recipe, which was described by laboratory experts as rare as “a frog with five legs.” This is the same recipe with which her grandfather started the brewery While it’s tempting, the thought of selling pains Udriene to the core.

“These American companies are interested in our yeast,” she says. “But they want the yeast without a patent. If we do that, there is a chance they will steal it, and I will never see the money.”

At the moment, selling the brewery is off the table for Udriene. Her future is still unclear, but based on the quantities of delicious, easy-to-drink ale she’s brewing, the Queen of Lithuanian Farmhouse Brewing appears far from getting dethroned.

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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