RIGA - There are few pleasures as sweet as taking that first sip of cold beer on a hot summer's day. It's at once refreshing, invigorating and gently relaxing. It's pure relief in a bottle. But how many people actually stop to consider what has gone into their beer?
Strangely enough, in these times of mass-produced food and drinks, beer enjoys a relatively "pure" production procedure, largely thanks to stringent EU legislation. Only four groups of additives, for example, are permitted as ingredients.
Aldaris is the largest brewery in the Baltics. Its factory, located in the Sarkandaugava district of Riga, was founded in 1865 and has been constantly expanded over the years to accomodate the increase in production output. It's now a vast, sprawling complex that is at the very heart of Latvia's thriving beer industry.
Martins Rubins is Al-daris' laboratory manager. On an in-depth tour of the beer-making process at Aldaris, Rubins denied that beer had become a purely scientific product, chemically engineered to resemble the traditional look and taste of beer.
"Brewing beer was actually a lot easier 100 years ago," Rubins explained. "People used to drink beer out of steins (mugs) and couldn't see what they were drinking so they didn't much care how it looked. And they only really drank it for the alcohol. But nowadays people want clear beer with a nice color, aroma and foam, not to mention a good taste."
Rubins was at pains to point out that the basic principles of beer-making have changed little over the years. The raw ingredients of beer are malt, brewing water, hops and brewing yeast.
After the malt is milled and mixed with the brewing water in the "mash" vessels, the mash is then filtered and boiled in several enormous wort "kettles" together with hops. The wort boiling helps break down the starch, which releases maltose, a disaccharide which nourishes the yeast, which in turn produces alcohol.
The fermentation period is next, which takes up to 10 days depending on the particular brand being brewed. This process lasts until the wort is fully fermented and the yeast has settled at the bottom of the tanks. At this stage the beer is known as "young beer."
The filtration process helps make the beer clear. Silicagel and polyvinyl-polypyrrolidone (PVPP) are used to stabilize the beer, and a special substance called kieselguhr, which is a compound of single-cell algae, is applied to plates in the filter tanks to remove yeast cells, large proteins and polyphinols, all of which cause beer to look "hazy." Hence, wheat beers forego this whole stage of the process.
Rubins is clearly enthusiastic about his work, a curiously old-fashioned scientist with a white lab coat who probably seldom drinks beyond the occasional obligatory tasting session.
"Beer is very delicate," he said. "Few people understand how difficult it is to make. It's very unstable and the slightest thing can change it. Sunlight, temperature, oxygen, many factors. We have to try and create a stable product that tastes the same throughout its shelf life."
The final part of the tour finishes in the infernally noisy bottling plant, where some 40,000 bottles roll off the production line each hour with almost frightening speed and efficiency. Then it's all loaded on board the all-too-familar Aldaris trucks, which will deliver it all around the country, from vast city hypermarkets to tiny kiosks in half-forgotten rural villages.
Most Baltic beers are as good as the best of them, which is no small thing when you think how many good beers there are in Europe, from the pilsners of the Czech Republic, to the ales of the U.K., to the wheat beers of Bavaria. Let's just hope that brewers can continue to find a responsible balance between quality and quantity.