Once before, Miera Street was Riga’s brewing stronghold. A good 100 years later, nearly a dozen craft breweries are resurrecting this part of the Latvian capital. A ramble with ten tasting slides.
Juniper? Pagan? Rosemary? With these flavors should the drink in the glass still be beer? Anyone who gets lost as a beer purist in the “Labietis” microbrewery in Riga, has to swallow hard. Because the brewing team there creates with his experiments for about five years, preferably beers with fierce, intense taste broadsides. There are more than 40 variations and they are Rock’n’Roll. For example, when Otto Treimanis hands an India Pale Ale brewed with oak-smoked malt and pine shoots over the counter. Or a Braggot, a met-like honey beer, in the “Labietis” version with berry juices, linden honey, myrtle, meadowsweet – and a rich 15.6 percent alcohol content.
The makers give a crap about the Purity Law, their creations taste of Latvia, the nature and the forests around Riga. That’s exactly where the brewers go once a year and camp for a week – for inspiration. “We use what we find in Latvia,” explains Otto, the bushy-bearded Latvian, before serving out the last test beer. Shortly thereafter, beer guide Kristaps Daubars navigates his small group of craft adventurers with meanwhile slightly increased value for money through the new “Riga beer quarter” around the Miera street, 20 minutes walk from the old town center.
Among students, artists and hipsters
Focusing on a few streets, you can try out almost a dozen microbreweries there. Kristaps has also selected a few of them for the route of his exploration tour. The plan: Try ten beers in three brewing pubs and two craft beer pubs within three hours. Most of them are local people at the bar, mostly between young Latvians, liberals and artists, students and bearded hipsters. They do not alienate with the beer exoticism.
The term “Riga Beer Quarter” was created by Ansgar Rungis, who runs the “Valmiermuiža” right next to “Labietis”. That evening the ramble through the Riga beer cosmos had started there. Kristaps was a waiter there, then a beer sommelier. That he likes to drink beer, you can see the thin 25-year-old without any sign of beer belly on. On the other hand, you soon realize that he is well informed about craft beer and the current trends in his city. “It used to be a beer district once,” he says. “Until the beginning of the 20th century, there were three breweries here, none of them survived, but now this piece of history is revived.”
The craft beer trend started in Latvia around 2010. Ansgar Rungis was also a driving force in this regard. With his pioneering brewery “Valmiermuiža” he brought the worldwide movement to the Latvian capital. With success: “The scene has recently exploded, and this year alone four new microbreweries have opened up that produce small quantities, also around Riga, because the water quality is so good,” explains Kristaps.
Although “Valmiermuiža” is only a few steps away from “Labietis”, it moves with its brewery products at the other end of the scale. Classically, the beers are there; Rungis attaches great importance to a rich taste and purity requirement. The rustic brewery pub with a Latvian specialty shop is reminiscent of a cozy beer tavern. The fact that Rungis has added the word “message” to his restaurant is due to the fact that the mothership of his beer mission was built some 100 kilometers outside the capital: in an old farmhouse from the late 18th century with a long beer tradition.
Until a few years ago, the small, Baltic state around the beer culture was rather poor. “The breadth of tastes was manageable,” explains Rungis. “The craft beer scene now shows that even Latvian beer can be varied in taste.” The national drink was always beer. There would be many old folk songs. In addition, the Germans had an influence as they kept the country occupied for a long time. And for the hearty regional cuisine – meat, cabbage, sauce – beer fits in the best anyway.
“Beer was and is our national drink”
“Beer was essential at big parties and festivals,” says Rungis. During the Soviet era, however, it has lost importance. Brandy, champagne, of course wine have taken the place of the beer on special occasions. “I wanted it to have a seat on the banquet table again, beer was our national drink, and I want it to come back,” that’s how the 42-year-old economist describes his mission.
The whole fanfare about the beer craft, the flavors and the attempt to taste the finest nuances, reminds some more of wine than the shirt-sleeved, honest simplicity that is actually attributed to the beer.
This impression is reinforced again when it comes to the “beer food pairing”, which is served in the “Valmiermuiža”. On the tour there is a small insight with appetizers, not with a hefty portion, which would have been a basis for more intense drinking: To accompany the “Amber Lager” there is more down to earth baked potato, sour cream and goat cheese. The “Baltic Porter” combines beetroot with pickled onions and dried cranberries.
Only the liquid enjoyment is later in the craft beer pub “Taka” in the center. Finally, the tour goes into the last rounds: The “Ziemeļu Enkurs” (“Northern anchor”) is the youngest gastropub with its own beer in town. The shop is located in the complex of the former “Kunzendorff” brewery, and the two drinking samples, like all brewery products, have a sea reference in their name. The “Octopus” is a porter, deep black like squid ink, with a distinct coffee taste. The pale ale “azimuts” is hopefully hoppy.
A few streets down the chic “Alkimikis” brews an American from Iowa, who has found his love in Latvia. “There are American-style beers here – lighter than the more heavy Latvian beers,” says Kristaps. Normally you could watch the brewer at work. But today he has long end of working day.
The three-hour expedition has shown that a lot and what is happening in Riga in terms of craft beer. But now all the flavors and tastes blur. Time to get back to the hotel.
Share your Latvian beer stories in the comment box below and pay them a visit if you are around in the hood – cheers.