YOU MIGHT remember the Daily News report a couple of months back about my diplomatic mission to Lithuania, where I spread the good word about American craft beer through the U.S. Embassy in Vilnius.
Well, there’s a second chapter in my efforts to spread peace through beer. I’m happy to report that Lithuania is coming to Philadelphia.
Specifically, it’s arriving in the form of next week’s 37th annual Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show, the guest-artist program of which this year highlights 23 Lithuanian artists. Their work, with that of more than 170 other artists, will beat the Pennsylvania Convention Center, Nov. 7-10.
To help put a little buzz into the show, I’ll host a unique beer tasting at the show, on Nov. 8.
It’s unique because, in addition to some outstanding, locally brewed craft beer, we’ll pour a pair of Lithuanian beers that have never – and I mean never – been served in America.
One is Birzu Senovinis, a traditional ale from Lithuania’s oldest brewery. I know it’s never been sold here because it’s unfiltered and unpasteurized and packaged only in plastic PET bottles.
That’s the way they like their beer in the countryside of Lithuania. It’s strong (7 percent alcohol), very malty and inexpensive.
It’s not at all like Lithuania’s more popular brands, Svyturys and Utenos, which are both imported here. Those are mass-produced and quite popular as light-bodied refreshers in the beer gardens of Vilnius.
By contrast, there’s something distinctly rustic and satisfying about the traditional ales brewed in the north of the Baltic nation. Their character is almost certainly a product of the malt, which tends to be somewhat sweet, but not as much as German bock. It has little to do with the hops, which are almost an afterthought in these beers.
The breweries that produce these unusual ales tend to be small – about the size of Yards or Weyerbacher. Most are family-owned, using recipes passed down through the years.
Birzu, for example, brews a beer called Sirvenos that’s made with a portion of peas, a vestige of the days when the nation was under Soviet control and proper ingredients were scarce.
Another brewery, Joalda, initially ferments its beer in an open container like a traditional British ale. But after two or three days of aggressive bubbling, the brewer transfers the suds into a closed, refrigerated tank and allows it to condition like a typical German lager. The result is a fruity, yet exceptionally clean hybrid ale/lager.
Like I said, you don’t see these unusual traditional ales of Lithuania in America because – without pasteurization or refrigerated shipping – they can’t survive the long trip. The one I’ll showcase at the craft show is being hand-delivered overnight from the brewery.
The back story: Frankly, I was a little worried that Birzu’s ale would make it to Philly for the event. Which brings me to the second beer that’s never been served in America: a home-brew made with “smuggled” Lithuanian yeast.
During my visit last summer, I encountered the spectacular country-style ales of Jovaru Alus, made by Aldona Udriene, the doyenne of Lithuanian brewing. (Credit goes to fellow beer writer Martin Thibault and Lithuanian beer guy Vidmantas Laurinavicius for turning me onto this brewery.)
Udriene’s beer is made without boiling, and it’s fermented with a yeast strain that evolves from one generation to the next, like sourdough starter yeast. Thibault earlier reported that DNA testing turned up no existing match for the yeast strain in a world database, which means that it’s virtually unknown in commercial brewing.
The beer is astonishing, like a malty saison with a sweet, funky finish. The yeast is clearly a big part of its flavor.
I brought home a few bottles of the unfiltered ale, its yeast still very much alive, and passed them to Michael Soo, a homebrewer and Ph.D. student in biochemistry at the University of Pennsylvania. He isolated several yeast colonies in his lab, examined them under a microscope (“There’s lots of stuff going on in there that aren’t yeast,” he proclaimed) and brewed up test batches.
With George Hummel, of Home Sweet Homebrew, in Center City, Ysoo and I tasted the various samples and found one we think is pretty close to Jovaru’s original. Hummel and Ysoo are brewing a full batch, and we’ll pour it at the craft show.
I’m hoping that it gives attendees an idea of the flavor of Lithuania’s unique countryside ale. Consider it the next stage in my continuing diplomatic efforts to bring world peace through good beer.
The craft-show beer tasting is one of my favorite annual events, because its intimate size provides a chance to personally introduce brewers to an enthusiastic audience through fun, live “interviews.”
This year, Laurinavicius (call him the Joe Sixpack of Vilnius) will be on hand to share his knowledge of Lithuania’s beer scene.
We’ll also chat with local brewers, including Scott Morrison, of brand-new Barren Hill Brewing; Dominic Capece, of Free Will; and Jeremy Myers, of Neshaminy Creek Brewing.