TO THE roll call of venerable U.S. foreign diplomats, we can now add this signature name: Joe Sixpack, beer emissary.
I’ve just returned from my first mission on behalf of the U.S. State Department, a beer-soaked education and cultural exchange tour of Lithuania.
I’m happy to report that I did not ignite any international incidents.
In fact, judging from my reception throughout the Baltic countryside, I may have a future as a diplomat, spreading world peace one beer at a time:
¶In Vilnius, the capital, members of the local chapter of the Chaîne des Rôtisseurs, the worldwide gastronomic society, agreed that the Philly beers served with a gourmet menu were at least as good as wine. So good, in fact, it took them just three hours to nearly polish off a supply of Yards and Weyerbacher that was supposed to last a full week.
¶At a beer festival in Pakruojis, a small town not far from the Latvian border, I was introduced to the mayor as Donas Russellas, and the organizers let me help tap the first keg.
¶In a taping of a popular Lithuanian cooking show, Virtuves Mitu Griovejai (rough translation: “Kitchen Myths”), I gobbled down an excellent Asian-spiced salmon dish that the hosts had simmered in Yards George Washington’s Tavern Porter.
¶At the U.S. Embassy in Vilnius, I briefed Lithuanian journalists and bloggers on the growing American microbrewery scene. Then I presented the deputy chief of mission with a Philly Beer Week T-shirt, which he promptly wore at the Pakruojis festival, where we greeted more than 4,000 attendees.
¶At a farmhouse brewery in Joniškelis, an agricultural village 175 kilometers north of Vilnius, I was smothered in kisses by a brewer’s wife (or cousin or fiancée – it was kind of lost in translation). Apparently Virtuves Mitu Griovejai is her favorite TV show.
John Kerry, eat your heart out.
Yeah, I know what you’re thinking: How the heck did Joe Sixpack get invited on a State Department expedition?
Credit goes to Krista Bard, the honorary Lithuanian consul in Philadelphia. She’s the key organizer behind this November’s appearance of two dozen Lithuanian artists at the annual Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show. As part of the program, I was asked to present a tasting of local and Lithuanian beers.
Only problem: I knew next to nothing about Lithuanian beer. Hell, it took me 10 minutes to find the place in Google Maps.
Bard stepped in, and in just a few weeks, coordinated my visit – including the rather complex set of hoops we had to jump through to meet local alcohol rules and ship American beer to foreign soil.
Yards donated a bunch of its Ales of the Revolution, and Weyerbacher provided ample cases of its “Big Beer” series. The selections were not casual; I chose the likes of Poor Richard’s Tavern Spruce Ale and Weyerbacher Double Simcoe IPA as unique brands that show off the range, diversity and excellence of American craft beer.
The Brewers Association, looking to expand exports, sent me packing with handouts on beer and food appreciation. Vidmantas Laurinavicius, a former business journalist who left full-time work at a newspaper to promote his country’s beer scene (sound familiar?), introduced me to brewers across the country.
And the staff of the U.S. Embassy in Vilnius, which underwrote the cost of the visit with a federal grant, set a daily agenda of visits and appearances.
Yeah, I know what you’re thinking: Tax dollars for a beer expedition?
To which I reply: It’s about time!
Beer is the ideal medium for U.S. diplomacy. With beer, we can share our creativity, our technology, our commerce, our independence. With beer, America can connect with foreign populations and make new friends worldwide.
Call it “hearts and livers.”
Best of all, it’s a two-way street.
In a week of travel, I learned that there’s much to appreciate about Lithuania and its beer.
About kaimiškas alus, a unique, age-old, sublimely malty “country beer,” and keptinis, in which a portion of the mash is baked like bread, then returned to the boiling wort.
About lard-fried black bread scraped with garlic cloves. (Forget your french fries, your salted peanuts, your chicken wings – this is the finest beer snack I’ve ever encountered.)
About the proper way to toast: I sveikata. It means “to your health.”
Most importantly, I learned how a small nation emerges from decades of communist rule to find its own way in the world. Believe me, a big part of the transition toward self-reliance includes pride in one’s local beer.
I’ll be writing more about Lithuanian beer as the Museum of Art Craft Show nears. In the meantime, I’m left with the memory of hugs and kisses from an enthusiastic Lithuanian woman and the flavor of her country’s beer.
All in the name of diplomacy.
Just call me U.S. Ambassador Sixpack.