Latvian Beer is Better Than You Think

As I lay half awake in my cozy, warm hostel bunk listening to the cold rain fall beneath dark Latvian skies just feet away, I try to remember why I was trying to drag myself from such relative heaven and into the cold. Ah, but because beer of course! Alas not just any beer, but a certain Latvian craft species produced by the fun-to-pronounce name of Valmiermuiža Alus Daritava.

Since my first sip of this micro brewery's delicious dark lager a few nights prior in a Riga pub,  I knew I had to find out more about one of the smallest and youngest currently in Latvia.

I must admit that I was quite surprised when my bar tender informed me of their immense popularity and infancy status. After all, judging by the super-classical label designs and accompanying glassware alone, one would probably assume a firm footprint in the Latvian beer industry for centuries, not making such market waves in just a meager five years.

Now I'm intrigued. So I decide to myself: a trip to this brewery must happen before I depart friendly Latvia! But with limited transportation options, I need to figure out how exactly to accomplish this in a cost-effective manner.

One might easily be mislead by year embedded in the brewery's logo.


After a little research I find that the Valmiermuiža brewery itself is located in a small town of the same name about 2 hours northwest of the capitol of Riga. I knew that getting to the brewery might prove tricky on short notice, and since it was in a rather remote area outside an already small town, public transit service would be difficult to rely on.

First things first, I call the brewery about tour availability and speak with their very friendly and accommodating staff members. I eventually find that the only existing group tours for this day would be in Latvian and Russian, however if I wanted to pay 24 Euro for a private tour, I could do so but must be there for a 10am opening. After speaking with an Aussie friend made at the hostel, we both decide to go and split the cost between us for a rather intimate tour experience. Game on!

Next requirement: Ground transportation. This is where things got a bit interesting. After checking on car rental rates from the typical rental car brands in Riga, it was recommended to me to check out a local car hire business ran by a former employee at the hostel for a comparable deal, but with a much more memorable experience. This is how I came to discover the great folks at www.pancars.lv. After a phone call and a short taxi to their shop, a lovely (and tiny!) "pan car" was in our possession:

Our awesome "pan car" ride just before we ship off for the day (Visit the cool guys at www.pancars.lv if in Riga!)

So, Brewery tour booking: Check. Transportation: Check. Game on! Now Daniel (my Aussie mate) and I are all set to head out of town first thing tomorrow morning.

That morning would start at around 7:00AM when we depart our hostel to walk a few blocks to our funky little car (above) that we parked the night before. After hastily loading some directions on Google maps and engaging the Fiat's choke enough for it to warm up (yep, this car has a choke lever!), we're on our way.

As we leave the big city and hit the countryside the clouds seem to miraculously burn off, giving way to a nice and sunny morning.  By the way, if you've ever wondered to yourself what Latvian countryside looks like, I can sum it up for you as this: absolutely spectacular. As we max out our little Fiat engine in 4th gear at about 90Km/h, and are passed even by every truck and bus on the road, I cannot help but stare out at the meadows as the direct morning sunlight evaporates the frost away into small clouds of rolling fog. Ah....wait, I digress. This is about beer!

After experiencing some unanticipated road work we arrive to the brewery about 15 minutes late. Only slightly concerned about this we stumble into the main reception desk to find a room full of beautifully decorated gift room. I was reminded immediately of walking into your typical Napa winery as I look through the elaborate display of rustic items for sale, items ranging from organic raspberry cheese spread all the way to 3L rubber-stopper beer growlers.

We chat a bit with the main desk, apologize for being late and are soon hooked up with our tour guide. The tour starts promptly and our guide starts by leading us back outside the property, where we're informed of the history of the land in which the brewery is situated on. We then take a very up close and personal stroll through the brewery to get a peak at their yeast cultivation, filtration, brewing, and fermentation operations.

Our excellent brewery tour guide, Sintija
Ingredients on display. Strictly only water, barley, hops. German Beer Purity Law is honorarily adhered to at this brewery.
Brew Kettles
Fermentation Vessels
Valmiermuiža also casks their beer for special events/customers
Bottling Line
Fresh Crate of Beer

After about 30 minutes of walking through the bustling, operational brewery we finally make our way upstairs to the tasting room, for some reason affectionately called "The Devastation Room". Ah, if only I didn't have to drive a clown car back across Latvia I could figure out the meaning in that. Oh well.

Here we are seated in a very nicely decorated room in rustic fashion with several dark-stained oak tables. I realize now how large these groups usually are and feel quite lucky that we’re getting such a boutique experience!

The Beers



Once seated, our guide asks if we'd prefer for the light and dark either filtered or unfiltered. I should note that the brewery offers their unpasteurized white, dark, and seasonal beers as either filtered (no yeast) or unfiltered (some residual yeast), the later available only in draft variation. Having already tasted the filtered versions of the light and dark before hand, I gladly opted to try the unfiltered variation.

Light (unfiltered)
Smooth and crisp, the brewery’s flagship beer is very good but a seemingly typical lager to me. While I find it to be refreshing and tasteful, I cannot say that it really did a lot for my tastebuds. Slight straw taste, very minor nose, clocks in at nice 5.2%.

Dark (unfiltered)
Being a sucker for dark malty lagers, this is where the magic is and is why I was sitting in that very room. This is the dark lager that struck such a chord after only the first taste a few days before. Fresh from the brewery’s tap this is no different. As she pours us a glass each and hands them to us I waste no time and go straight in for the taste. A very drinkable, very malty, super dark and with a strong head, this 5.8% ABV beer reminds me of a classical German dunkel lager. Absolutely delicious!

Winter (filtered)
Fermented for 50 days, this 7.0% winter warmer is brewed seasonally and sports a nice dark amber color. Similar to the others the nose was very faint and the taste not too strong. I was reminded (again) of a dead ringer German Oktoberfest beer recipe.

Friss
This “beer cocktail” came out as a bit of a surprise to me. A very light (2.8%) and well carbonated sparkling wine style of beer, apparently created “for the wives” or anyone else not particularly keen on beer. The nose was quite strong with bold scents of elderberry and, in my personal opinion, that of a higher potency marijuana strain! The taste was fruity and sweet with very strong hints of the elderberry. I quite enjoyed this one and could see my girlfriend enjoying it as well. From the website: 
"Valmiermuiža Frišs is brewed from Valmiermuiža filtered light beer and natural elderberry seltzer in proportion 6:5, adding a drop of quince freshness."

Wheat
This weissbier recipe is one that the brewery is staging as it's first ale in Valmiermuiza’s product family. Hints of citrus peel and coriander seed, this was a very typical wheat beer that I did not find particularly distinguished among other weissbier that I’ve had, though it was very tasty indeed!

Smoked (not pictured)
The smoked beer was not available on the tour, however we did manage to find a 0.5L bottle in the gift shop that we took home to try later. A jar of the malt that it was brewed with was available to sample, which had a very rich alder wood smell and taste, strikingly similar to that of smoked salmon!

Table Decoration


Group Shot:: Friss, Dark (unfiltered), Light (unfiltered), Winter Seasonal, Wheat

Friss

Winter Seasonal


Verdict


I'm admittedly a complete sucker for tasty dark lagers, which in the end is why I made this trek. I'm absolutely glad that I did and very much enjoyed visiting such a relatively tiny brewery satisfying thirsty Latvians at a rate of 1.5 tons per year! Latvia indeed seems to have a very active and unexpected brewing scene. Those of you going to Lithuania for the beer culture there would be wise to take the short trip north to experience it as well.

Also, after giving the tasting experience some further thought, it also dawned on me that all of these beers seem to be heavily German-influenced, but with their own Baltic spin. Bonus fact: the significance of the year in the brewery's logo is that of when a manor was constructed on the large property after it was awarded by the Emperor of Russia, Peter III to Field Marshal General Peter August, of purportedly German origin.

Eventually it was time for us to depart. After picking up a few bottles and a filled growler-to-go from the gift shop, we said our good byes and finally set off back toward Riga. A day most well spent!

Thanks for reading - Priekā! (cheers!)

Headed home in the clown car!

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