VILNIUS - The first time I came to Lithuania, I walked into a bar, looked at the beer taps and wondered which I would try first. As I am generally interested in the brews offered by each country I travel to, I wanted to make sure I would get the right one. Knowing none of the beers on tap, I just asked the bartender to recommend one.
The disgruntled staff member grabbed a glass without speaking then began to slowly fill it with a light colored beer. I asked him what it was and he didn't answer, but just pointed to the taps. The tap read "Svyturys Ekstra." He threw the glass down on the bar and walked off to use his mobile phone.
The next bar I walked into greeted me with more or less the same. I asked the bar staff for a recommendation and I got the same beer, but in a different glass. After two years in the country, I have realized that this routine gets played out time and time again in bars around the country.
"Ekstra! Ekstra!" will be yelled in your ear if you ask any patriotic Lithuanian what beer to buy at the bar or at the supermarket. For most of the inhabitants of this country, that is the only beer they drink or even know.
In most bars you will find Svyturys Ekstra, Baltas and perhaps 's if the bar is particularly open minded 's Kiss Cider on tap. This is the extent of the selection of beers that one can get with food or on a night out. So where can you go when you have had a gutful of Svyturys products?
Fear not, because Lithuania actually has a good spread of independent breweries that produce beer with traditional methods and ingredients. Some say that the microbreweries here are actually the best in the Baltic region.
What most Lithuanians are used to is lager 's a clean and pale beer that has a strong sweet taste. Other traditional breweries, however, make a range of other types including dark beers, amber ales, wheat beers and more.
"In our style, it is most important that the beer is natural 's for us it is traditional beer, it is better for our health and it tastes better. The most important ingredient is malt and we make it only from malt," a Rinkuskiai Brewery representative told The Baltic Times about their strict and traditional methods.
Rinkuskiai Brewery is located in Birzai, which many in the country consider to be the home of traditional Lithuanian beers. Often people go to the city just for the breweries that the city boasts.
The beers they produce are often dark and usually very strong by regular standards. Tourists that go to the town are often knocked flat, according to the brewers.
"[The] dark, rich and strong beer with a slight sweet taste usually deceives guests thinking that the beer is very light. Unfortunately, they find themselves ending the party too early," the brewery representative said.
THE NEW WAVE
In other cities in the country beer-lovers are forging a new market. Tadas Kanopka is head brewer at Avilys brewery, which creates beer to be consumed in the company's restaurants in Vilnius and Kaunas.
Avilys, meaning 'beehive,' is a restaurant and makes its own beer, which is sold exclusively in the restaurants.
Kanopka said that the beer scene here isn't big enough and people don't have anything good to drink and therefore just buy commercial products.
"There isn't much to choose from 's there are only three or four big breweries making a lot of beer here. In my opinion, it isn't a big industry 's it should be bigger," he told TBT.
"Lithuanian people want to drink more than Avilys and what other microbrewies are able to make, but when they try our beer they say that [Svyturys] Ekstra and others are bad with a chemical taste 's you don't get that with ours because it is natural."
Among others, Avilys produces a honey beer, which Kanopka said is his favorite. Exotic beers such as this are the draw card of microbreweries in the country.
"I think our best beer is our honey beer because it is special 's not many people make this and it has a unique taste," Kanopka said.
Beer lovers will tell you that the way the beer is served is of utmost importance for taste and enjoyment. The head, the glass and temperature of the beer are all fundamentals. Most bars, however, don't take much notice of these things 's flat, warm and in the wrong glass are criticisms that could be leveled at most barmen.
A common sight is the 'glass half full' 's where beer is poured up to the plimsoll line without any head, allowing the beer to get flat and warm. Often glasses are hot straight out of the dishwasher.
Belmontas brewery makes all natural beer in one of the suburbs of Vilnius. They say that the handled glass is the most fitting culturally for the beer they make.
"In our culture and traditions 's usually people just want to drink it in normal glass, but nothing special. I think the beer looks better in the handle," a brewery representative said.
One aspect of the beer enjoyment spectacle in Lithuania that no one could argue with is Kepta Duona (Fried Bread). This dark bread, fried in oil and rubbed with garlic and salt is the perfect condiment for any style of beer.
Some also eat steamed or fried pigs ears with beer to wash it down.
Good, naturally brewed beer with great condiments is part of Lithuania's culture.
"Lithuania is the best in the Baltics because we have the traditions and their [Latvia and Estonia] beer is not as good as ours," Kanopka said proudly about the country's northern neighbors.
Seek long enough and you will find a good beer to help while the days away while chatting to people at the bar.