So how is Riga? The taxi ride from the airport does not tell much – lots of wooden houses, some being beautifully restored. Lots of traffic, with surprisingly flashy new cars. We cross a river and enter the Old Town. This is pretty. Picture postcard pretty. Some buildings go back to the late Middle Ages, some are beautiful examples of the jugend or Art Nuveau style. There is not much here to tell you that this was the capital of a Soviet republic. All signs in Russian are gone, and the architecture has more references to Swedish and German rulers than the Russian tsars and comrades.
This is an illusion, of course. When we leave the old town and approach the Riga Central Market on the other side of the railway tracks, we see the other Latvia. Old and grey people who try to sell stuff from their small stalls. Russians stranded here in this country where they are almost half of the population, but where they are a constant reminder of occupation and dictatorship, of kinsmen who were sent to the Gulag and replaced by Russians or others from the far flung empire.
with this background it should really be no surprise that the Lativans are a rather gloomy people, at least when the last remains of Winter refuse to let go, even if the calendar proclaims that April is just around the corner. They are helpful if you ask, but they do not waste their smiles or small talk with strangers. The only local that struck up a conversation with us turned out to be a settler from Belarus…
But I left you with a cliffhanger yesterday. Beer.
The old breweries in the Baltic regiaon are on private hands, to a large extent bought up by the usual global suspects. In Bulgaria this led me to believe that this can give some hope for a better average quality of the domestic beers in the years to come.
In Latvia, it is rather the opposite. There is a fine range of bottled and draft beers available. I did not count carefully, but in the two supermarkets I visited, there were more than fifty bottled beers to be found from more than a dozen brewers. Most of these are domestic, but there are a few Russian and Czech beers, too. In addition, the typical range in the bars and restaurants I visited is five or six draft beers on tap, often unfiltered.
There is a relevance here to the discussion in the beer blogging community about a month ago about extreme beers versus session beers. The Latvian beers are by no means extreme. But they have other qualities.
The emphasis here is on lagers. A few Baltic Porters occupy the stong ends, there are a few bocks and even alcohol free alternatives. But the majority are lagers between four and six % ABV. Light and dark. Dunkles and Helles. They may be related to the German and Bohemian beers – this is a Hansa city founded by German noblemen and traders and run by them for centuries. But there is a healthy disregard for the rules and definitions, there is certainly no Reinheitsgebot here.
Sure, many of the beers share a common ground. There is a freshness, I believe the unfiltered beers on tap tend to be unpasteurised. There is also a full grain or biscuity flavour which could be due to them using domestic barley for malt which gives this full taste.
But then they add other ingredients. Honey is easy to distinguish in some of their beers. Others have spices – it seems to me that all the beers from the Ingver brewery have some ginger in them, giving a warming, lingering finish that was very pleasant. This is what I fear will not survive when Inbev, Carlsberg and the other want to standardize and make bigger breweries that will serve the whole region.
The conclusion? Go while you can…
(To be continued)