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Home sweet homebrew: The secret ale of Cizas

  • 2000-08-17
  • Darius James Ross
DUSETOS, Lithuania - Like many educated Lithuanians living in the country's outskirts, Ramunas Cizas was faced with a dilemma: packing up and moving to a larger city or starting a small business. Cizas loves country life and his family has lived in the village of Dusetos for more generations than he can remember. He chose to stay and open a microbrewery.

"I have a degree in agricultural economics that I earned during Soviet times. For all practical purposes, it's useless in today's Lithuania," he said. With the dismantling of the collective farms, no one needed someone with his qualifications and large-scale private agriculture is only now beginning to revive in the country.

Cizas brews beer according to a secret family recipe handed down to him by his father.

"When I turned 15 my father took me down to the cellar of our home, locked the door and said 'Son, I'm going to teach you the secret of Cizas ale'," he said. Cizas' grandfather and great-grandfather were also known for their brewing abilities.

"Back in pre-World War II Lithuania every self-respecting farmer brewed his own ale. But in this area whenever someone celebrated a wedding or other festival, it was always considered wise to have a couple of barrels of Cizas ale available in addition to the householder's brew," he said.

During Soviet times his father continued brewing the ale using it as barter to acquire durable goods and food.

"Of course, in those days no one was allowed to operate a private business. But everyone knew that this family provided real ale - not the disgusting stuff that the state breweries produced. So we traded the ale for other things we needed. Alcohol was the de facto currency in those days," he said.

So what is the secret to brewing real ale?

"First, it's having clean water. I own three wells. I've had an electric kettle for six years and there isn't one bit of hard water build-up on the coils. City dwellers have to buy a new one every year," Cizas said. "Using quality water is 70 percent of the secret to brewing good ale."

Cizas is also a beekeeper and uses the honey he produces in his beer.

"Honey is the true family secret. I brew a batch [of ale] every week. It takes about 36 hours during which I don't sleep. The secret is knowing the exact time to add the honey. A half-hour earlier, and it's too sour, 20 minutes later it's too sweet."

Although he owns sophisticated thermometers and other instruments, Cizas stopped using them long ago. "I just use my taste buds now."

Another secret is that Cizas grinds his own barley to make the malt that is cooked in huge boilers.

"Buying pre-ground barley is tricky as it's hard to know what quality you're getting. If it's been sitting around too long before shipping, it will alter the taste of the ale," he said.

What makes Cizas ale so special?

"This is live, unpasteurized and unfiltered ale. It will only last a week, as I use no preservatives. I never drink ale or beer from a can or bottle. I consider those beer-flavored alcoholic drinks," he said.

Ale and beer are fermented using yeast consisting of microscopic fungi that consume the sugars in the grain, converting them to alcohol and carbon dioxide gas. After it has been aged and filtered under pressure, commercial beer is usually heated to 82°C, i.e. pasteurized in order to kill any remaining yeast. This extends its shelf life as a commercial product. Yet for centuries prior to Louis Pasteur's invention of this process in 1865, ale always retained a small amount of yeast and was somewhat cloudy as a result. This is what Cizas means by live beer.

Real live ale is becoming very trendy in Europe these days among connoisseurs. One of Cizas' colleagues in Pasvalys ships his live ale to Sweden by air the day it's brewed. Cizas' problem is that tiny Dusetos isn't near an airport large enough for him to do this as well.

He and his wife work tirelessly during summer and take time off in winter. His wife runs a roadside barbecue in front of the brewery that sells pork kebabs and ribs.

"Summer is peak season. I sell 500 to 1,000 liters of ale a week. In winter, I provide accommodation to hunters who come here from the city, but it's not much work. People don't drink much ale in winter. It's really a summer drink."

Cizas' pet peeve is Lithuanian government bureaucracy. He's careful in choosing his words.

"In recent years Lithuania has become a nation of inspectors. I have my own way of dealing with them," he said.

Bribery is a common complaint among small business owners in Lithuania. It is not necessarily that the business owners are dishonest. Bureaucrats often threaten business people with red tape in order to pad their own pockets.

Ramunas Cizas' brewery is located just north of the village of Dusetos on the highway running north from Utena going to Obeliai (turn north at the village of Daugailiai). He sells five-liter take-away jugs for 18 litas ($4.5) each. The ale has a 5 percent alcohol content, unlike most country brews that range from 6 percent to 11 percent.