Riga

Latvian beer

28 Feb 2017

It’s a sunny day and bearded 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.

By the 19th century 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.

A guide for Beer Snobs
When in a foreign land we always try to wet our whistle with a local brew, but since we’re card carrying beer snobs this isn’t always an easy task. After all, we don’t want to waste our time on mass-produced pilsners and loutish lagers. If you’re of a similar mind then here are a few tips on where to get a good Latvian brew that won’t make you hurl.

If you’re in the old town then head over to Folkklubs Ala Pagrabs, which may be hard to pronounce, but serves roughly 20 Latvian beers including delicious offerings by the Malduguns brewery like Sānslīde – a kind of dark IPA. On the other end of town you’ll find the Aussie Pub, which has a special 14-beer sampler that will give you a crash course in Latvian beer. Try the Kaņepju alus (cannabis beer) by Iļģuciems. It also has great brews by Coopers as well as some lesser offerings from Down Under like VB. Outside of the old town, at the tiny neighbourhood pub Alus Muiža you’ll find one of the biggest selections of Latvian craft beers in the city on draught and in bottles.

However, the main destination for all beer snobs in Riga has to be the Valdemāra Pasāža, which is home to both the Labietis craft brewery and the so-called embassy of the Valmiermuiža brewery. Labietis is constantly experimenting with new recipes that use unusual ingredients such as local herbs and spices. Although we usually order the Three Indians IPA, other brews like the Tapeworm Killer and the Beekeeper’s Widow have also piqued our curiosity. The Valmiermuiža brewery in northern Latvia has been producing quality beer for years now and can hardly be called a craft brewer these days, but they do pour their latest creations at this ‘embassy’. Try a hearty porter on a cold winter day or a refreshing wheat beer in the summer. It also magnanimously sells beer by smaller boutique brewers like Malduguns here. Try whatevever’s on draught or the Zaļā bise (Green Shotgun) made with American Cascade hops.

If you’d like to buy some interesting brews for the road then we recommend Alus Celle on Baznīcas, where you can also enjoy a brew on the premises, or Beerfox/Callous Alus on Stabu that also specialises in quality craft brews from around the globe. In the art nouveau district try Būņas which stocks Malduguns, Labietis and other local craft beers. If you're at the Riga Central Market you can taste beers at the Labietis stand in the vegetable pavilion and Iļģuciema alus in the meat pavilion.

Brew tours
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).

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