The beast in the east

Adrian Tierney-Jones charts the progress of Eastern Europe’s craft beer explosion


It was late at night in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius and I was hunting for a Baltic porter. As I ambled along the quiet streets, a chap crossed the road from a group of idling taxi drivers and, somehow guessing my nationality, asked me in English if I was looking for anything. There was a pause. “Girls?” he added. I shook my head and asked him if he knew of any pubs that sold the luscious, roasty Lithuanian porter brewed by Utenos. He scratched his head, seemingly nonplussed by an offbeat request from someone whose fellow countrymen usually spent their time roaming Vilnius looking for lap-dancing clubs. He then pointed to a street and mentioned an Irish pub I had just passed. “They have dark beer,” he said and went back to his friends. 

That was in 2008 and I never found my Baltic porter, but a few months later I was more successful during a trip to Poland to see Żywiec’s massive lager-brewing facility. The Heineken-owned company also operated a brewery in Cieszyn on the border with Czechia (it was a very atmospheric brewery and even had its own cat, which no doubt dealt with any rodent problems). Here, Żywiec Porter was produced, an intensely flavoured, lusciously creamy and bracingly roasty Baltic porter that took three months to make from brew to final lagering. I drank of lot of this beer that day. 

The post-war years may have seen lager styles washing over the Baltic States and Eastern Europe with the rapidity of the Red Army in 1944, but it was Baltic porters that always sprang to mind when I thought of beer in this part of the world — if I could find it. 

How times change. Even though our idea of the region’s beer is probably influenced by the big slabs of Tyskie, Warka and Žywiec lagers piled high in your nearest Polish supermarket, there is a vibrant collective of craft breweries in Eastern Europe. And guess what? Many of them have a Baltic porter in their portfolio, some of them featuring the kinds of ingredients (hazelnuts, coffee, vanilla) that almost place them on the spectrum of pastry stouts (another popular style amongst indie breweries in the region); some are also served nitro style. Brewers certainly like to make Baltic porters, if the thoughts of Chris Pilkington, head brewer of Põhjala brewery in the Estonian capital of Tallinn, are any indication.

“Not only does a Baltic porter combine everything I like in a beer (complexity, rich malt sweetness, dark fruits),” he tells me, “but there are also just so many ways to do it! There are so many nuances and special ingredients that it provides the perfect canvas for, whilst also being a fantastic test of your brewing mettle every time. The history of Baltic porter is one that is foggy at best, and I like that it has really made a resurgence, developing as a style recently and we’re super proud to be a part of that story.”

There is a vibrant collective of craft breweries in Eastern Europe

“I think craft beer did a good job for the popularisation of Baltic porter,’ adds Jakub Piesio at Maryensztadt brewery in Eastern Poland. “At the end of January we will have a Baltic porter day celebration and almost every brewery in Poland always puts out something special then. We have prepared an ice distilled Baltic porter aged in a Woodford Reserve barrel.”

However, there is beer beyond the Baltic porter in Eastern Europe.

We might have thought in cliched terms that vodka was the beverage of choice, especially with the long cold winters, but beer is king, especially in Poland, which, according to a report from the Brewers of Europe in 2019, was the second largest producer of beer in Europe. Even though the vast majority of beers sold in Poland come from internationally owned large breweries (those products I mentioned that you see in your local Polish supermarket), breweries such as PINTA, Stu Mostów, Maryensztadt and Trzech Kumpli (whose Pia and Misty feature in the Beer52 case that accompanies this issue of Ferment), are creating beers across a whole spectrum of styles. 

This surge in interest has been helped by the fact that the Polish independent beer scene has been in a healthy state of growth (COVID not withstanding) over the last few years. Ratebeer shows 561 active breweries (of all kinds) on its website, many of them cuckoo brewers, and this healthy, thriving indie beer sector makes Poland a vital pitstop on any beer-lover’s grand tour of Europe (whether in person or in one’s armchair). 

“In the last two years the top selling craft beer styles in Poland have been NEIPAs and hazy IPAs with lots of American hops,” says Jakub Piesio, “plus pastry and sour fruit beers with a lot of lactose. In the summer time, the bestselling beers are light sour fruit ones. Classic styles are still popular but mostly with the group of costumers who are having their first contact with the craft beer market. In winter times porters and imperial stouts, especially from barrels, are popular. 

“When we started in 2015 we were focused on classic styles. After one year of production we started developing a sour fruit line and then we began to develop a barrel-aged line with imperial stouts, porter and barley wines. Two years ago we started with wild and sour beers and we still make a lot of hoppy beers and classic styles. We always have in mind to produce something that will find a place on the market. With such a big portfolio of beers what I most focus on is quality and consistency, and then with stable production we always find some place to have some fun and test new things like ice distillation, mixing barrels, nitro coffee beer, hoppy lemonades and so on.”

This healthy, thriving indie beer sector makes Poland a vital pitstop on any beer-lover’s grand tour of Europe

Sceptics might smirk at this duplication of beer styles that are pretty standard in British breweries, but given that Poland’s indies have a pretty small cut of the beer cake a well-made NEIPA or hazy, juicy IPA can be a fabulous alternative to a pint of lager made by a corporate brewery. There is, also, a unique style that Poland is noted for. This is grodziskie, a light in alcohol, gently smoked wheat beer that like Lichtenhainer and Leipziger Gose over the border in Germany had seemingly become extinct. However, thanks to the efforts of breweries like PINTA, Maryensztadt and Trzech Kumpli this is a beer back from the dead. 

“It’s funny, because in Poland it worked two ways,” says Jurek Gibadlo, co-owner of Jerry Brewery and beer writer. “The craft revolution in Poland began with the brewing of a small batch of Grodziskie in 2010 by the guys who set up PINTA a year later. So you could say that Grodziskie is a cornerstone of the Polish craft revolution. We at Jerry Brewery are brewing not only the classic version, but ones with a lot of twists and reinterpretations, such as Hoppy Grodziskie, Peated Grodziskie and so on.”

Over in Estonia Põhjala and Sori also look to their homeland for influences on their beers, for instance with Sori’s Beer52 selection as co-founder Heikki Uotila explains.

“Hypothermia is our seasonal brew for the coldest months of the year. Its base is more of a traditional English amber brewed with only English malts, but it has a Nordic twist with a heavy use of Finnish rye malt. The endless nights and the short summers here give the grains a unique growing environment that produces quite special tasting rye malt. Elsewhere with our beers we also get inspiration from nature and are big fans of Estonian juniper for instance.”

Estonia also plays a major role in inspiring some of Põhjala’s beers. The outfit produces a group of beers named the ‘Forest Series’, which uses ingredients such as spruce tips, birch bark and rowan berries. According to Pilkington, Torm, an imperial Gose brewed with heather honey, heather tips and lingonberries, “is inspired by walking in the forest opposite our first brewery, and seeing them all growing together. On a deeper level though, our environment affects us in how our beers taste. We may be selling beer across the world but it is brewed in Estonia and we want to make sure that it suits that — so our dark beers like Öö are strong and sweet partly because during the cold winter nights this is exactly what you need to keep yourself going.”

Then there is Lithuania, where I started my journey. Here, there are large breweries as well that speak the international language of craft beer, but what has been utterly fascinating has been the light that writer Lars Marius Garshol has directed on the country’s farmhouse brewing scene. This is a process that seems to take brewing back to its rural, small-scale, elemental roots as some beers are made with a raw mash, yeasts ferment at higher temperatures (very much in the tradition of kveik), peas are used as ingredients and, according to Garshol, who has thoroughly researched these Lithuanian curiosities for many years, these are very distinctive tasting beers. In his 2015 book Lithuanian Beer: A Rough Guide, he mentions Jovaru Alus as the “classic among Lithuanian farmhouse ales” and regularly poured at the Snekutis bar in Vilnius. A beer that is an essential to taste if you want to understand what has inspired this writer over the years — just don’t ask any taxi drivers for directions.

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