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Baltic Bounty

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That’s the thing about iron curtains. As well as being devils to open, they’re not very transparent.

Svyturys BreweryIn the days before the collapse of the Soviet Union, what sort of picture did we have about brewing in Eastern Europe? Not a lot, if the most influential beer book from that era is anything to go by.

Of the 256 pages that make up Michael Jackson’s New World Guide to Beer, published in 1988, only two are devoted to Eastern Europe.

There’s plenty of space reserved for what was then Czechoslovakia, which offered a slightly more relaxed approach to visitors, but the vast empire that included the likes of Hungary, Poland, Russia, Ukraine and the Baltic nations is collectively covered in just a few paragraphs.

As Winston Churchill may well have said when asking for a pint in Moscow, the Soviet beer scene remained a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.

Eastern Influx

Well here we are nearly 20 years after Michael’s seminal tome was published, with fall of the Iron Curtain almost as distant. It’s been a slow process, but now beers from the old Eastern Bloc are flooding into our pubs and shops, thanks to the acceptance into the European Union of former Soviet countries.

There can’t be many off-licences that today don’t sell at least one beer from Poland, to cater for the influx of migrant workers, and tongue-twisting names like Tyskie, Okocim and Zywiec are now bandied around style bars as easily as Leffe and Beck’s.

The next country to make an impact may well be Lithuania, which, like Poland, has seen its jobless total slashed by the unemployed heading to Britain to find work instead. Hoping to tap into that exile market and also bring a dash of Baltic colour into our more adventurous watering holes is a brewery called Svyturys.

Ekstra: Read All About It

You may already have come across bottles of Svyturys Ekstra in Wetherspoon pubs. It’s just about to be stocked by Tesco, too. The beer is brewed in the Baltic seaport of Klaipeda, an exhausting three-hour drive from the capital Vilnius, as I discovered, through flat-as-a-blini farming landscape punctuated only by carp ponds and the occasional housing eyesore from the Soviet era.

Klaipeda used to be a German city known as Memel. It was destroyed by the Russians at the end of the war, but the German influence seems to persist in the beer preferences here.

The Svyturys Brewery – watch for blank looks when you pronounce it properly as ‘Shvee-too-rees’, which means lighthouse – was a casualty of the war, its 1784 roots ripped out by the carnage only to be functionally replanted in a new concrete block in the middle of town.

One of the benefits of Lithuanian independence has been money for the brewing industry. No more do Svyturys and rivals like Utenos and Kalnapilis have to make do with sub-standard equipment from a central factory in Ukraine, or second-rate malt and hops handed down from distant fields within the empire.

Cash for Breweries

Since 1991, there has been cash to build again – hence the gleaming new brewhouse – and ingredients are now sourced on merit rather than availability.

Svyturys BreweryAll this has been a boon to the country’s re-born citizens, especially as Lithuania is very much a beer-drinking nation.

Per capita, they drink the neighbouring Latvians, Estonians, and even the Swedes and Finns across the water, well under their solid rustic tables.

Inevitably, there has been some outside interference. Kalnapilis now belongs to the Royal Danish group (Faxe) and both Svyturys and Utenos are now owned by Baltic Beverage Holdings, the joint venture between S&N and Carlsberg.

So far, from the Svyturys viewpoint, foreign fingers have only tickled the belly and are not reaching for the throat, but they are no doubt responsible in some way for the push to export the brewery’s excellent range of beers.

Svyturys Ekstra, at 5.2%, is by far the main brand, designed in 1995, as brewmaster Dzuljeta Armoniene (pictured) confided in me, with the simple aim of creating ‘a very drinkable beer for pubs’. Sup it in those Lithuanian pubs, as I was lucky to do at less than £1 a pint, and you’ll find that she’s achieved her goal.

It’s a thoroughly satisfying, full-bodied but well-balanced blend of rich, sweet malt and delicate hops, with a refreshing lemony zing and a dry, moreish finish. It’s all the better for a four-week lagering period and for remaining unpasteurised.

Twice as Nice

In bottle, the beer is sold in two ways, pasteurised as Ekstra and unpasteurised as Ekstra Draught. The latter tastes fresher and more delicate but in all its forms Ekstra is a fine beer, broadly in the style of a Dortmunder Export (see what I mean about German influence?).

The extensive Svyturys range also includes a toffeeish, Vienna-style ruddy-amber lager called Baltijos (6%) and a tasty weissbier clone that goes by the title of Baltas (‘White’, 5%). Czech beers apart, I think you’ll find they’re a cut above most of the mysterious Eastern brews that have been exposed since the Iron Curtain was so dramatically torn from its hangings. 

This feature first appeared in What's Brewing in August 2007. Please note that details and facts may have changed since that first publication.


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