It’s a sunny day and bearded Latvian millennials are imbibing IPAs and wheat beers on the wooden terrace of a stylish brew pub. Young women chat and enjoy the first rays of spring sunshine over tall glasses of cloudy lagers and sour fruit brews. Only 10 years ago this scene would either describe a casual bar in Portland, Oregon or be a complete fantasy dreamed up by a restless Latvian homebrewer.
Although the Soviets did their damnedest to stamp out centuries of local brewing traditions with cheap vodka, it seems that Latvians are finally returning to their first love – beer. In fact, while the Vikings were pillaging and plundering ever farther from their northern homes, the Letts of old seemed content to tend to their own honey-blessed lands coaxing glorious mead from the sweet nectar left behind by bees. Later, Teutonic knights would bring Christianity to these Baltic shores and even better beer recipes, for which the Germans are now so rightfully famous. Due to a lack of large metal containers in Latvia used to brew beer, this was done locally by adding hot rocks to the beer mixtures in wooden casks. This so-called 'rock beer' brewing process was still used throughout the country until the 1800s.
By the 19th century proper breweries could be found throughout what is now Latvia, but none as large as Waldschlosschen, which was founded in 1865. In 1906 it was Europe’s most modern brewery and roughly 30 years later the company was renamed Aldaris (or beer brewer in Latvian). In 1940 it brewed 8 million litres of beer (45% of the Latvian market), but trapped as it was behind the Iron Curtain the company’s output dropped to only 3.3 million litres in 1976. But the USSR and its infamous five-year plans didn’t spell complete disaster for Latvian brewers. Yes, there was plenty of swill that tasted of butter and lacked any kind of carbonation, but in 1971 the Tērvetes kolhoz began brewing beer with barley grown on its own land. This tradition continues to this day and it has earned them the coveted ‘green spoon’, a Latvian award that ensures a quality product that is made with a minimum of 75% local ingredients.
Independence in the 1990s piqued the interest of foreign brewing multinationals and the country’s biggest brands like Aldaris and Cēsu were quickly snapped up, but a brewing renaissance could be glimpsed on the horizon when new, small breweries like Užavas and later Valmiermuižas began producing quality lagers, ales and pilsners. The success of these new players finally convinced homebrewers to open their own breweries leading to the current proliferation of brew pubs and craft brewers like Labietis, Malduguns, Odzienas Muiža and Viedi that create unique, modern beers in small batches. Thankfully, even the big brewers have taken notice and most offer at least one unfiltered ale or a special brew to gain a piece of this lucrative niche. Aldaris, which is now a member of the Carlsberg Group, has completely scaled back its production and has begun concentrating on a wide range of proper, high-quality brews that can be found in most supermarkets.
Beer lovers can also taste Latvian and international brews at the annual Latviabeerfest in the Vērmanes Park at the end of May each year for food, live music, children's attractions and of course lots and lots of beer. The Riga Craft Beer Festival will also be held on January 4 (18:00 - 24:00) and 5 (15:00 - 24:00), 2019.
If you’re not content just sipping a local brew in a bar, but would like to see how it’s made, and taste a sample on the premises, then we have a few suggestions. In Riga you can visit the Labietis (Aristīda Briāna 9A-2, labietis.lv) craft brewery and see the whole operation behind a glass wall while you sip a brew or take a tram to the Aldaris Beer Museum (Tvaika 44, beermuseum.lv) for some history followed by a beer or two in its tasting room. A one hour and 45 minute drive northwest of the capital you’ll find the Valmiermuižas brewery (Dzirnavu 2, Valmiera), one of the best beer experiences in the country (reservations required).