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'Brewmaster' needs a guard on the door

Inside Latvia's largest brewery there are still 200 wooden casks

Crime in Latvia is apparently bad enough to justify a guard in military fatigues at the main gate of Aldaris, the country's biggest brewery. Aldaris means "brew-master".

This enterprise was established in 1985 by the Burgomaster of Rigs under the name Waldschlosschen ("castle in the forest").

Behind turn-of-the-century gatehouses is a building decorated with a statue of Gambrinus. Most of the buildings date from this period and a 1937 copper brewhouse, retired five years ago, has been retained as an historical item. The present brewhouse is also copper.

The brewery still has about 200 wooden casks. The casks can be maintained, and even replaced, as long as the brewery's cooper remains in his job.

He has, however, served for 40 years and declines to train a successor. A widower, he married his only colleague (a coopster?) and they're anxious to retire.

From the Aldaris brewery I tasted a range of sweetish lagers, ascending in order of character through the worty Pilzenes (3.7-4.0 alcohol by volume); the hoppier, livelier Baltijas (4.3-4.5); the smoother Zelta (5.0); the well-balanced Jubilejas; and the maltier Latvijas (6.0).

Clearly the Latvians are accustomed to lagers on the stronger side and most of the examples I tasted seemed to have gained some caramelisation in the kettle as well as a cellar-like house yeast character.

A cleaner-tasting "premium" lager, Aldaris, is being added to the range but is currently being made by Hartwall in Finland as part of a Joint venture.

I had much more fun with the porter. Among the 18 breweries in Latvia, only Aldaris makes this style.

Its example, at a gravity of 1080 and an alcohol content of 7.0-plus, is ruby black, smooth, malty, lightly syrupy and liqueurish, with liquorice notes.

All commercially-made beers in Latvia nominally use bottom fermenting yeasts, though sampling suggests these cultures have a wanderlust. Even the porter is bottom fermented.

Whichever yeasts are used I hope distinctive brews survive in the Baltic states. That night I went for dinner in a cellar bar where the collective farm's beer is served in earthen-ware mugs. The place was almost empty. The young things of Riga were, I was told, in a Guinness pub - drinking "premium" lager.

Published Online: JUNE 2, 2000
Published in Print: NOV 1, 1995
In: What's Brewing

Brewery Review

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