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Craft Beer Is Struggling In Lithuania—But Not in Its Capital

December 13, 2018

By Wailana Kalama, December 13, 2018

“You like sours, yeah?” asks Tomas Josas, founder of Vilnius’ experimental pub Prohibicija. He hops over behind the taps, almost giddy. “It’s a very simple gose from one of the newest breweries in Lithuania, just less than two kilometers from this place.” He hands me a pint of Nemiegose Pareigose, a salty sour from microbrewery Kuro Aparatūra, which is Lithuanian for “Fuel Machine.” “Sours aren’t as trendy in Lithuania as they are in Europe at the moment, but we’re breaking barriers a little bit.”

With a beer tradition that stretches back centuries, Lithuania offers an assortment of brewing styles that are still, uniquely, Lithuanian. Back in the day, each village was said to have had their own brewer. Beers would be brewed with ingredients plucked straight from the forests: berries or herbs, or more unusual additions such as peas, hemp, walnuts, and raspberry stems. “In Vilnius, 200 years ago, almost every house brewed their own beer. We drank weak beer instead of water,” Harry Areška from Špunka pub tells me. “If you didn’t have yeast, you’d go to your neighbor and they’d give it to you.” A traditional farmhouse ale will still be on the sweeter side, with earthy undertones, since it’s still difficult to grow hops in Lithuania thanks to its colder climate.

The Lithuanian beer scene has been reeling from recent laws banning advertisements of all alcohol, installing a beer curfew (it’s forbidden to sell bottles after 8pm, after 3pm on Sundays), and increasing the drinking age from 18 to 20. It’s still more common among the general public to drink cheap, industrial beers. It’s not unusual to find bottle shops where you can fill up your own jug with this type of beer, starting from around 1.80 euros per liter in cities. Overall, it seems there’s little space for microbreweries or craft styles.

Viktorija Gajauskaitė PhotographyBambalynė

But in Vilnius, and neighboring Kaunas, the craft bar scene is anything but lagging. Though the craft selection in supermarkets is still quite small, a handful of small bottle shops, such as Alynas and Maukas, still draw in faithful diehards. And though the market is dominated by macro brewers, around 20 bars in Vilnius focus solely on craft.

Šnekutis

Your first initiation to the craft bar scene in Vilnius should undoubtedly be Šnekutis, a now-legendary country-style pub with three locations within walking distance from each other. With heavy wood tables and farm tools strapped to the walls for decor, it feels more like a barn than a bar. When mustachioed Valentas Vaškevičius opened his pub on bar Šv. Stepono street in 2007, it was the first of its kind and paved the way for other niche bars like Bambalynė and Alaus Namai. With a tavern vibe, the chefs at Šnekutis whip up hearty Lithuanian fare at a moment’s notice, thick and in generous portions, made to coat the throat for ale. Go for their house brew, Jovaru Alus, an amber with sweet, nutty notes brewed by none other than Aldona Udrienė, the Queen of Lithuanian brewers. Between the hearty potato dumplings, cured pig ears and cozy country beers, you’ll soon forget you’re not in the Lithuanian boonies.

Bambalynė

The bricked cellar Bambalynė is cloistered away off a cobblestoned street in Vilnius’ Old Town. Like many pubs in Vilnius, it’s both a bar and a bottle shop. However, there are no taps in Bambalynė—patrons instead go straight up to the refrigerator filled with more than 100 different beers, all brewed in Lithuania. You’ll find everything from milk stouts to sours, fruited beers and a handful of non-alcoholic brews. I am immediately drawn to a bottle called Pupsy the Great, a dry and dark beer from Rinkuškiai Microhistory, which narrates the story of Pupsy the horse’s untimely demise, complete with a sketch of pegasus. The bartender shows off some of her bestsellers such as Davra’s Varniukų, an aromatic lager with hints of rye. It’s as dark as a crow—incidentally, Varniukai means “little crows”—but a far cry from your typical potent porter or stout. The style is known as tamsusis—literally "dark"—and is typically fruity and toasty in taste. Though Bambalynė can get snug on the weekends, the medieval accoutrements, painted tankards and stacked wooden crates make for a cozy watering hole.

Viktorija Gajauskaitė PhotographyBambalynė

Špunka

Opened in 2013, Špunka is tiny but jam-packed with character,a favorite in the arts district of Užupis. As the flagship bar of Dundulis Brewery, evident by the pagan snake emblem splashed on the walls, you can bet that all 8 to 9 taps are dedicated to its best beers. These are the staple styles of the beer world, all under 3 euros per pint: Pale Lager, Oatmeal Stout, English Bitter, plus the first commercial IPA in Lithuania, the citrusy Humulupu. Every inch of this bar’s walls exudes a cheerful, scruffy feel—from pen sketches of patrons to the birch leaf whisk and the blue-robed Irish angel over the door. What draws the neighborhood back to Špunka, though, is the charming bartender, Harry, who feels like the customers are, in his own words, family. “When I opened the bar, I never worked as a barman,” he says. “I thought I would just sell beer… But now it’s become something different, something much much more. I didn’t expect it, actually.”

Devinkė

A few steps down the hill from Špunka is Devinkė, run by its affable owner, Evaldas Jurkštas. The entrance welcomes you straight up to the bar, armed with six taps—half of which are from Pilialaukis Brewery, the other half of which are a medley of rarer brews, such as Linkuvos Alus’ Du Medu, a mild summer ale infused with two types of honey. This pub is friendly and unpretentious, with modern lines yet lacking hipster overtones. An adjacent annex is stocked with couches, moody lighting and chess boards. Regular live music and poetry slams draw in the student crowd from the nearby art academy and business school. And true to the creative vibe, walls and counters are smothered with doodles. Grab a marker and go Da Vinci, or chat with the bartender—Evaldas is ready to geek out about his beers at a moment’s notice, taking pride in how he curates the day’s selection.

Viktorija Gajauskaitė PhotographyDevinkė

Nisha

Since opening its doors two years ago, Nisha Craft Capital has built a reputation as a craft connoisseur. The interior reads like a shrine to drink: bottles line the shelves, “Slainte” is chalked on the wall, even the ceiling is a wire net decorated with empty cases of rum and whiskey. Nisha is a regular haven for beer nerds, boasting a whopping 21 taps, with no less than six or seven dedicated just to sours. At a price point of 3 euros and up, they err on the pricier side comparatively, but customers continue to be drawn in by the selection from all over the world. Nisha prides itself in rotating taps every day, so no matter when you drop by, there’s always something new. The chalkboard draft list reads like a lineup at an experimental music festival: Batch #2 (Spanish stout), Todd the Axeman (Danish/US IPA), IFleurette XXX (Italian sour), Mango Milkshake (Lithuanian APA). There isn’t a Guinness or Amstel to be found. “Everything is changing, all the time,” Vaidotas Kirlys, Nisha’s cool-headed founder, says. “Last year, it was sours, this year, new IPAs, next year will be lagers or pilsners, I don’t know. I think breweries should choose what they want to brew, to surprise customers.”

Prohibicija

Prohibicija is another bottle shop slash bar, tucked in a small annex just north of Town Hall. Tomas Josas, with his trademark, ampersand-inscribed ballcap, introduces me to a tiny, red-lit tasting room lined with around 150 different beers. With a chalkboard menu and a chart of the brewing process tacked on its gray, cement walls, Prohibicija has a downplayed, industrial vibe. All focus, the place seems to say, is on the brews: Gose infused with seaweed, intense sours, sea buckthorn lager, milk stout brewed with caviar and champagne yeast—the more experimental, the better. As the owner of bottle shop Maukas, Tomas decided to open a bar once Lithuania enacted its beer curfew. “We had to switch out our concept a little bit, because it wasn’t worth it to open up at 5 and close at 8,” Tomas says. Prohibicija rapidly became a neighborhood favorite, growing from four taps to 12, five of which are dedicated to Lithuanian breweries. It’s the quirky beers that seem to attract the most attention. “We can put stupid beers on tap and they usually sell,” says Tomas. “We had the most sour beer with lime and lemon juice once, and we thought that we would struggle to get it out. But eventually it was so popular and high in demand.” Look out for Gediminas Volkas, brewer from local favorite brewery Sakiškių—a name which seems to be on the tip of every hophead’s tongue in Vilnius—and who bartends from time to time. Prohibicija and Sakiškių are close, as evident in their most recent collaboration, a New England-style IPA, dubbed NEIPA, brewed 20 km from Vilnius.


Main photo: Nisha Craft Capital by Viktorija Gajauskaitė Photography

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