Catching up with the grand old man of Latvian brewing

  • 2004-07-08
  • By Aaron Eglitis
BAUSKA - An elderly man with white hair and a grandfatherly smile walks through a barley field, letting his hands glide through the waves of golden stalks. The image, from a TV commercial for the Bauskas brewery, reflects the charm and the pride of Karlis Zalitis, Latvia's oldest brewer.

Born in the northwestern city of Mazsalaca, Zalitis, who turned 78 on July 2, has been brewing beer for 53 years. Under his professional guidance, Bauskas, where he has worked for the past 23 years, has won a number of accolades, with three of its brands receiving gold medals at an international beer contest in Moscow in 2001.
For his brewing expertise Zalitis was awarded the Three-Star Order in 2001, one of Latvia's highest honors.
Indeed, Zalitis' long career reads like a history of the country's brewing industry. And he has seen it all.
"Before there was an independent Latvia, most of the brewers in Latvia were Germans. The Latvians brewed beer in Russia, where they did quite well, until Stalin purged many of them," he says.

Home brew
Just by talking to him, one can tell that Zalitis has fond memories of the summer solstices in his childhood, in Mazsalaca, where brewing beer was a skill that many possessed. Since then, however, it has fallen into disrepute, and many people in the countryside thirsting for stronger libations prefer to distill their own hard alcohol, something much easier to make than beer.
Statistics, which show that consumption of beer in Latvia lags behind both neighboring Estonia and Lithuania on a per capita basis, bear out this trend.
But the memories of beer's golden years run deep. "In the countryside every house made its own beer. Each family brought their own barrel to Jani [midsummer]," says Zalitis. "My mom made beer from rye bread and other extracts."
From that point on, he was in love with beer.
When the war broke out in Latvia, Zalitis was still in high school. He was conscripted in the Latvian Legion in 1944 at the age of 18 but didn't join.
"I wanted to go to the West - my class mates were going," he recalls. "I was prepared. I packed and was ready to sit on my bike, but my father refused. He said our whole family is here in Latvia and was going to stay here, so I also stayed."
Later, when the Soviet army came through in October 1944, Zalitis was mobilized. Many other men his age from Mazsalaca subsequently died, while he narrowly avoided being sent to the front to fight against the Latvian Legion and the remaining Nazi military in the so called "Kurzeme's kettle." His father bribed commanding officers so that he could avoid being sent to the front. Fighting continued in Kurzeme against the Soviets until Berlin surrendered.
After the war he continued his studies and returned to school. He originally wanted to be a photographer - his father had given him a Minox camera - but he eventually returned to beer and studied how to distill hard alcohol and make wine.
He worked at a number of different breweries, including Varpa and Tervetes. He created the recipe for Tervetes Sencu Alus, or ancient beer, and many of the brewers at Tervetes are his apprentices. Though officially retired, nowadays he is responsible for Bauskas dark beer and for concocting their non-alcoholic beverage, Veseliba.
Zalitis, who also speaks German and Russian, has traveled to Germany, arguably home to some of the world's finest beers, on many occasions for beer tasting. With a laugh, he recalls how the police were called in when an entourage of Latvians he was with began dancing and singing in a Munich bar.

Tradition first
The Bauskas brewery accounts for roughly 4 percent of the Latvian market, giving it seventh place overall. The brewery prides itself on its combination of traditional brewing techniques and local ingredients. For centuries brewing in Latvia was dominated by German entrepreneurs, and although Bauskas has adapted production to suit modern tastes, it has shunned the mass production approach taken up by Aldaris and Livu.
"In Aldaris beer, you could say the only thing from Latvia is the water," says Zalitis. "All the beer brewed in Germany, the U.K. - and at Aldaris - tastes the same. It tastes different here [at Bauskas] because we have special conditions. We have a specific microbe, you could say," he boasts.
Bauskas' director Vladimir Barskov says he hopes to capture a larger market share through skillful marketing and a gradual increase in production. By showing the authenticity of Bauskas' beer, which uses Kurzeme barley and local water, he hopes to win over beer enthusiasts from other brands, despite the fact that Bauskas is more expensive.
Production-wise, Barskov says the strategy is to first meet domestic demand, and then possibly sell in Lithuania. In the meantime, the company, which was bankrupted twice in the 1990s but is owned by three individuals, including Barskov, is holding talks on selling brew in London.
No doubt the pressures of competing in a common market have left their mark on Bauskas, and the Latvian brewing industry in general, and many breweries - such as Cesu and Lacplesis - have found it cheaper to outsource most of their production to places like Estonia or the Czech Republic.
During a recent visit to Bauskas by Polish brewers, the guests said that such small, traditional breweries were a breed that had all but died out in their country.
Still, at Bauskas, they are confident that quality will win out in the end.
"Bauskas beer is good," says Zalitis. "Whether it's the best only you can say."

In a country with one of the lowest life expectancies for males in Europe, Karlis Zalitis continues to confound his friends and colleagues. His secret for longevity: "I don't drink beer - I just taste it," the esteemed brewer says, although he admits to consuming an entire bottle during the recent summer solstice. "Many of the other brewers used to drink alcohol. First they started with beer and then moved on to vodka. I never drank that much. That's why I am still alive."