In May last year we were sad to hear of the passing of Vidmantas Laurinavičius. Vidmantas was the expert on all things beer and brewing in his native Lithuania. We met him back in 2014 when our annual summer beer trip headed to the historic UNESCO World Heritage city of Vilnius. We’d sampled some beer on our first night; beer tourism didn’t seem to be big in Lithuania at the time, and some locals we spoke to seemed to be surprised and delighted in equal measure that we’d made the effort to visit their country.
We’d pre-arranged a trip out to visit some breweries, organised by Vidmantas and his friend and fellow member of the Brotherhood of Beer, Vytautas. The trip cost us quite a lot of money, so we were eager to see what we’d get for our money. He arrived at our hotel promptly on our first morning in the city, with a minibus and driver, and we set off on a journey that took us north of the capital to within 25km of the Latvian border, and would take us on a round trip of some 300km.
After a couple of hours of travelling through the flat agricultural countryside that makes Lincolnshire look hilly, we turned off the main road to the ‘city’ of Joniškėlis (to us it appeared to be a small town, but we were assured otherwise!), where our first destination was the Joalda brewery. Founded in 1994, this is a very neat set up in a barn adjacent to the owner’s house, and the owner himself, Algimontas Rimkevičius, was on hand to welcome us. Despite the language barrier, his enthusiasm was plain for all to see, and we were immediately served beer, a sweetish golden brew called Joniškėlio Respublika 1919 (5.2%), which was instantly topped up as soon as your glass ran dry! With our two guides providing the translation, we had a tour of the brewery, and a taste of a darker brew straight from the fermenter, before retiring to a rustic timber covered seating area in the garden, where we were able to try another beer, Lokio Peda (‘The Bear’s Paw’, 7.5%) which was served in an equally generous manner. By now it was midday - even though our body clocks were trying to convince us it was only 10am – and we stayed for around an hour enjoying the beer and the company as Algimontas played the perfect and generous host.
After a few photographs and many handshakes (and a few take-away bottles for the bus) we said goodbye to Algimontas and made the short journey to the village of Jovarai for our next visit. Jovarų brewery was started in 1995 by one of Lithuania’s few female brewers, Aldona Udrienė, using recipes and a process that has been passed down through the generations. The brewing process here doesn’t involve boiling in the manner we are used to; the water is boiled using a wood stove and is poured onto the malt, where it sits without any further heating for three hours to make the mash. Only two beers are produced, an unfiltered brown beer Jovarų Kamiškas Alus (5.6%), and a sweeter alternative with added honey, both of which we were able to enjoy in the garden with a selection of traditional Lithuanian bar snacks; the garlic fried bread became an instant favourite.
Our next brewery was in the town of Pakruojis, where another female brewer, Kristina Grigonienė, was our guide around her brewery, A. Grigonio, founded in 1999. Once again, we were treated to a brewery tour, with Vidmantas and Vytautas providing the translation, before we were able to try the beers, and some more snacks, in the brewery garden. The dark beer, whose name roughly translates as “Evening” was the drink of choice here. They also brew a non-alcoholic malt drink which our driver was able to enjoy, if enjoy is the right word for it, as it was pretty foul.
The theme of supping beer in brewery gardens continued after a pleasant lunch when we called in at Rosalimo Alus, based in the small village of Rozalimas. The brewer was not at home, but we were able to sample his two beers, a light and a dark both at 5.5%. We had another stop at Paliūniškis, where the local brewer has a roadside tap room where beer can be bought to take away, so we tried a number of his wares here too.
Our final stop of our marathon tour was in Panėvežys, at a log-cabin pub Seklyčia prie Uosio, which is the home of Piniavos Alutis brewery. The brewer here, Vidmantas Perevičius, specialises in flavouring his beers with unusual ingredients. We were able to try three (all at 5.5%), one with Red Clover (Raudonųjų Dobilų), another with Raspberry Cane (Laukinių Aviečių) and a new beer with Cherry Leaves, all of which had a pleasant and subtle flavour. We also tried the Seklyčios, a more traditional 5% pale ale.
Refreshment on the journey home was provided by the bottles given to us at Joniškėlis. We were dropped in the centre of Vilnius, where we headed either home, or to a bar, where we considered the money for our trip had been money very well spent.
Vidmantas’ generosity did not stop there, and our guide arranged to meet us the following afternoon to show is some of the pubs of the city. Our first was Alaus Namai, a bar that he himself had founded a few years ago, though he had long since sold his share. The bar retained its commitment to local beers: there was an impressive menu here, with 16 draught beers and a number of bottled offerings. We had a tasting of a number of the draught beers and a good supply of bar snacks, the cost of which all seemed to be covered by the previous day’s bus fare. We drank a beer made with bread, which itself is made from the spent grain of a previous brew (Ramūno Čižo Kaimiškas, 5.2%), an excellent wheat beer, the oldest of this style in Lithuania (Gubernijos Kvietinis, 4.3%) and a rich, dark beer, Tamsusis Elis, from Gubernija brewery (5.9%).
After this, we were treated to a trip around a number of bars, starting at Busi Trecias, a small brew pub started in 1994, which brews three beers, Sviesus, a lager, Juodas, a 6.5% dark lager and Brandusis, a Baltic Porter. Our ultimate destination was one of three Šnekutis pubs in town, this one on Šv. Mikalojaus in the old Jewish district of the city. The Šnekutis bars were started by Aurimas Vaškevičiaus, a larger-than-life character with a huge moustache who seems to be the face of Lithuanian beer, appearing on a number of adverts and promotions. He was responsible for bringing the traditional beers from the countryside to a wider audience in the capital city, and the bar we went to was his latest, opened only in March this year. For somebody whose face appears all over Lithuania, he was an unexpectedly quiet and shy man, but was a welcoming host nevertheless.
Here we met up with more members of the Beer Brotherhood – who are not all male, despite the name – and we spent an excellent evening trying all of the available beers with them. Particular favourites were the light Daujotų (5.8%) and the dark Varniukų (5.6%), both from Davra brewery, and an unusual find here was an oatmeal stout, the first ever brewed in the region, Dundulis Gutstoutas (5.2%), brewed by Širvėnos Bravoras of Panevėžys, who also brew the IPA we’d enjoyed here and elsewhere.
As you may have guessed, I go on many beer trips, so it’s a testament to Vidmantas’ enthusiasm and friendship that this particular trip has stuck so long in the memory. His sad passing means that doing something similar today would be pretty much impossible, which is a shame, as there’s so much to see, learn and enjoy. Vidmantas, rest in peace, beer brother.
(some of this report is taken from an article I wrote for the Oxford Drinker Issue 85 in 2014)