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The 3 Year Trip, A Brewers Tale

Part 1

Several years ago, a friend and I had planned for a trip to the Baltic States to tour some very traditional farmhouse brewers. A medical emergency on my part prevented such a trip. Then, of course, Covid happened and it did not seem wise to do leisurely travel under the circumstances given our health issues (did I mention that 70 is annoyingly close for me and a year away for my friend?). Perhaps it was ill-advised to make the trip now as covid hasn’t gone anywhere, but one does realize that postponement can lead to cancelation in life.

I was lucky enough to have a couple authors of books on farmhouse brewing respond to emails I had sent seeking someone to guide us through Lithuania and Finland as we don’t speak either language and it seemed safe to assume that farmhouse brewers would not speak English either. I want to thank Lars Marius Gashol for putting us in touch with Jonaiste for the Lithuanian portion of our trip, and Mika Laitinen for reaching out to Marjokaisa for the Finnish portion of the trip. Both women were amazing in advocating for and trying to preserve the farmhouse brewing traditions in their countries. Since I do not have a Facebook account, my friend stayed in contact with Jonaiste through Facebook, while I stayed in contact with Marjokaisa through email.

We flew from MSP to Helsinki and then to Vilnius, leaving here on 9/5. Flight cancelations and delays were overcome, and are seemingly part of the new normal of traveling. Our schedule was to rest a day, then connect with Joaniste for guidance. We did stroll to Alus Namai on the first night just to get a taste of a couple local beers. I tried a támsusis; a darker lager-styled brew at 5.6%ABV which has just a bit of the yeast components of Lithuanian beers. My friend had a Cizas keptinis, an amber lager at 6%ABV, which really showed off the straw-like nose Lithuanian traditional styles are known for. We also ordered the common bar snack of Lithuanian pubs: dark rye bread soaked in oil, deep-fried, and served with minced garlic and cheese sauce. It tastes pretty awesome in spite of the cardiac concerns!

The following morning, Jonaiste and her husband, Povilas, picked us up at our hotel and we set off for Panezevys. Lithuanian roads are largely 2 lane, even in high traffic areas. A 3rd lane is often "created" in passing situations which engenders the use of all 16’ of roadway, especially if semis are involved and they often are. I was more than happy to have Povilas at the wheel!

We stopped at Panezevys to meet with Vykintas, who is a very active promoter of farmhouse brewing and a curator of the wooden barrels used in the stone-beer brewing common in the area. He moved his family to a rural area to get away from the bustle of the city and to lead a simpler life. His wife is an accomplished potter.

Stone-beer brewing uses fire-heated stones lowered into a wooden mash-barrel to step-mash the grains to a final temp of 80 degrees Celsius.

You’ve read that correctly, the mash is NOT boiled! Farmhouse beers are live beers and the brewers have long traditions of brewing this way successfully. Vykintas told us he starts the brewing process by filling grain sacks and then sinking them into the creek running behind his house. After 2 days, the grain has swollen enough to be toasted in the wood-fired sauna, then coarsely milled. On brewing day, the grains are poured into the mash barrel, water added, and a stone or two is tonged into the mash while stirring to evenly heat the mash. A rest period of an hour or so passes before another stone or two is lowered into the barrel. Usually, there are 3 successive rounds of adding stones and letting the mash rest. The brewers of old did not use thermometers to determine temperature of the mash, they simply relied on feel. Once the mash has reached 80 degrees, the kuurna, or lauter tun (Vykintas has made his own out of a hollowed-out log) is prepared with straw at the base and the grains are scooped into the kuurna and the liquid is slowly poured through the grain bed. The liquid will be added back to the kuurna until the liquid flows clear out of the spout. I should note that all equipment is soaked and then sanitized with boiling water before use. The beer will now be cooled until one does not feel any warm vapor on your face when putting your face over the barrel. At this point, the yeast will be pitched and fermentation begins. Whole hops are seldom used, but sometimes a hop tea is added to the mash. Fermentation usually takes only a day or so. The resulting beer must be kept cool at all times or it will start actively fermenting again and go sour. Joaniste informed us that Vykintas has been tireless in demonstrating at festivals and gatherings the methods used to produce farmhouse beers.

In the Panezevys area, keptinis beer is also brewed. This involves baking the grains into bricks in an oven and results in a caramel color and additional sweetness to the beer. Vykintas also poured us some Rowanberry mead he’d made, which was tart but with complex sugars and an apricot nose. The beers we tasted were from his cellar and while still vital, had lost some vigor but still retained much of the straw field aromas. We are so grateful to Vykintas for sharing his beers, time and story with us. What an awesome 1st stop!

We returned to Vilnius where we rested to recover a bit from the flights the day before, and then went out to meet Jonaiste and Povilas at Busi trecias where we were introduced to Romas, a local brewer who had established the first brewpub in Vilnius in 1993. He kindly showed us around his quite compact basement brewing area. IPAs are becoming quite popular in the Baltics as the next "new" thing.

The next morning, it was onward to Birzai, where Joaniste introduced us to Vidutis and his grandson, Carlos. Vidutis poured us some fresh Sviesusis after showing us around his brewing area of his basement. He uses a wood stove to heat water to add to the mash and uses a homemade lauter tun. His beer is lighter in style than what we had in Panezevys with very good carbonation and is less sweet than I had expected; in other words, a nicely balanced beer! Vidutis is in his late 70s and retired. He has brewed all his life and says he no longer experiments, but has landed on the one recipe only. He is training his grandson to brew and Carlos is eager to continue the family tradition on his farm. Vidutis told us we were the first Americans to visit his brewery; how lucky we were to have Jonaiste and Povilis to guide us!

During our drive, we passed large buildings that were collective farms during the Soviet era; there is still a poignant air in any conversation when those times are mentioned. There is also a great deal of pride that the "forest brothers" as the Baltic resistance came to be known as had a majority of Lithuanian members.

Joaniste and Povilis next arranged a visit to the Dundulis brewery in Birzai, where we we shown around the facility and sampled some of their beers. I was quite impressed with the overall excellence of all the brews we tasted. I also was embarrassed by my inability to believe them when they showed me a steam boiler and I couldn’t find the burner on it even though they pointed to a metal door on it twice. Soviet-era wood-fired boilers still exist in spite of my having never seen one before! Dundulis is brewing APAs, stouts, and a sviesusis that is quite good. Povilis might well be employed by them sometime in the near future.

Our last visit had been arranged with the help of Tomas with Dundulis brewing, we visited Simonitis near Panevezys. He is a gentleman nearly 88 years of age, whose enthusiasm and humor would convince you he is far younger. He has a well with a long lever and a bucket apparatus that he says many locals ask to use the water from for their brewing. I have heard that Lithuanian water is uniformly very good, but perhaps his is better. At any rate, we strolled around the farm, saw his basement beer storage, and his brewing sauna. He grows his own hops, which were planted by his grandparents and keeps many boxes of bees on the property (we discovered that bee-keeping is very common in rural Lithuania). As with Vykintas and Vidutis, we were offered charcuterie and fruit as well as samples of their beers. Simonitis takes great pride in having won medals at brewing competitions and it’s easy to taste why. His beer has a somewhat lighter gravity, but the fresh hops are well-balanced and very low alpha. There are quite subtle hints of honey in the beer, but Simonitis says it is not used in the recipe. We were able to sample Simonitis’s yeast which he continually propagates to keep a fresh batch ready; it was smooth, almost creamy, and had no harsh notes. The beer was regardless a very drinkable beverage and any time our glass seemed even slightly low, Simonitis was ready with the pitcher and the Lithuanian saying "Dar Proviana" which translates to just one more beer!

Jonaiste and Povilas invited us to Snekutas that evening to share several brews and some great conversations with their home-brew club. Some quite good brews were poured and we were very grateful for the invite.

The following evening saw us taking the train to an Eastern suburb of Vilnius for the Putoja beer festival. 30 breweries were present from as far away as Iceland. Lots of interesting pours!

I wish to thank again Jonaiste and Povilas, for their generosity and warmth and for interpreting my fractured English to the farmhouse/family brewers. We quite literally couldn’t have done the trip without them! Should you wish to do such a trip, feel free to contact me and I will put you in touch with them.