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Latvia leaves the dark ages of home brew

Gone are the days when sacks of barley were placed in a river to sprout

The young women were seated round a bath. There were five or six of them peeling onions and throwing them into the ordinary domestic bath.

"That's where we make our pickles," explained the director of the brewery.

We took a quick look and strode on, past a cabbage patch and similar strips of land growing beet, potatoes, wheat and barley.

Finally we reached the bakery. I asked about the bread being baked, which turned out to be rye and sweet-and-sour.

He took me to his office and told me about his interest in bee-keeping.

"I was known for it. I was invited to Britain to talk about it, but I couldn't come. There was a problem with something I had said or done in the past. In a country like this everyone has such a problem."

The country is Latvia, which has had its German moments and its Soviet times, and is currently trying to figure how to be an independent democracy.

My host, Andreja Mizis, runs a collective farm and brewery called Lacplesis in Lielvarde, south-east of Riga, the capital. Lacplesis is named after a Latvian folk hero who led a struggle against the Germans in the 1300s.

It began as a community "home brewery" and gradually went commercial.

The enterprise grows its own grain and makes its own malt, including a crystal type. It began as a community "home brewery" and gradually went commercial.

Mr Mizis told me about the home-brewing tradition in Latvia. Sacks of barley were placed in a river to sprout and the grains then spread out in the sun.

The grains were then made into a porridge and warmed in an oven to become a loose, caramelised dough. This was placed on a bed of hops and straw in a linden barrel and sparged with hot water.

The resultant liquor was not boiled but simply fermented with baker's yeast. It would then be filled into barrels which would be kept in cold water while the beer had a secondary fermentation for up to three months.

The first runnings would make a high-gravity beer for guests, the second would be regarded as a domestic counterpart to "Pilsner" and the third would be served to children.

Musing on the similarity of early brewing traditions almost everywhere, I asked whether rye was used and simply got a querulous look in response.

"How about juniper twigs?" I persisted. "They're for smoking meat," came the reply.

Rural home brewing continues in the province closest to Belarus and Russia, Mr Mizis explained. The people there add sugar.

"After three litres of that stuff, you fancy your neighbour's wife," I was warned.

The present brewing vessels were installed in 1982 and make a 25-barrel batch two or three times per day, round the clock.

An oak tree is growing into the stone building that houses today's pickling shop, bakery and brewery. It looked older than 60 years but was said to date from the 1930s. Commercial brewing began in the 1960s. The present brewing vessels were installed in 1982 and make a 25-barrel batch two or three times per day, round the clock.

Polish hops are used and the hot wort passes over a rare open Baudelot cooler. Fermentation is in open vessels and lagering in horizontal cylinders, both lined with aluminium.

I saw an entire new brewery under construction. The smart building was well under way but the project is being slowed by lack of money. The collective is becoming a public company, with the members of the co-operative receiving shares according to length of service.

As in many breweries in the former Eastern bloc, the beer is made by a woman.

"They don't drink when they should be working," explained Mr Mizis.

We chewed over a plate of pirags. This ubiquitous Baltic snack is somewhere between a sausage roll and a won-ton dumpling. The local interpretation was made with sweet dough and stuffed with bacon fat.

I ate far too many, building a thirst for the brewery's only product Lauku Tumsais ("Country Dark").

The amber brew, said to be made with a lager yeast, was quite hazy, extremely malty, very smooth, with an almondy finish. As it slipped down I began to notice a warming alcohol.

"How strong is this?" I enquired. "Sixteen degrees (1064 original gravity)" he responded. He thought that gave it about 4.5 per cent alcohol by volume but I guessed more. The beer had not been fermented all the way but I would have bet on something close to 6 per cent. I could tell by the way I was beginning to speculate about the attractiveness of his wife.

Published Online: JUNE 5, 2000
Published in Print: NOV 1, 1995
In: What's Brewing

Brew Travel - Brewery Review

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