All bars are not created equal. When finding a double IPA on draught seems an impossible task, you’ll see exactly what we mean. Riga’s craft beer scene may not be quite as far along as some of its closest neighbors (looking at you, Tallinn), but there are no doubt some seriously great things happening that are sending Riga in the right direction. Follow along with us as we explore the best craft beer in Riga, but first, some backstory on the city in question.
Riga, Latvia – not the most talked-about place in the world, but ever since it was named the European Capital of Culture in 2014, the little city near the Baltic has us all paying a little bit closer attention. Getting there from Berlin was all too easy, so we decided to spend a week learning the ins and outs of the city. As with anywhere, that entails delving into the drinking culture of the locals.
Riga’s winters are intensely cold and long, so the drinks of choice are understandably strong. Vodka is of course a staple as well as Riga Black Balsam, a traditional Latvian liqueur made from over twenty different ingredients – various plants and their different parts – infused in vodka. Despite the need to keep warm during much of the year, Latvians also enjoy drinking beer. Throughout their history Latvians have traditionally been very creative with their brewing, adding herbs, spices and berries to their beers. Although thanks to years spent under German occupation, those strong German traditions left a lasting impression and led most modern Latvians to prefer the smooth lagers characteristic of German brewing. This may not be truly based on preference nowadays, but rather owed to the fact that there’s just less variety in terms of the beer being brewed and sold throughout the country. Most large commercial breweries in Latvia further perpetuate this narrow view of what beer is and what it can be by making and distributing beer in a lager style, deviating only along the spectrum of lightness and darkness.
Since these big players control much of the market, many Riga pubs are limited in what draught beers they’re able to offer. There has, however, been a renewed interest in the brewing methods of the past and in concert with the rapidly exploding craft beer movement, Latvia is beginning to see more variety as local breweries branch out from the brewing mores of the past few centuries.
Hang on one second. What is craft beer? What puts one beer into the craft category and leaves out the rest? Who’s making that call? All excellent questions which deserve exploring. For those who may not already be on the microbrew bandwagon, or just want to understand the newfangled hype around a time-honored beverage, we’ll start with some basics about craft beer in general.
Craft brewing is a movement within the beer community that aims to reclaim brewing as an art, not the overly commercialized process that it has become. The term microbrewery was originally coined to describe the literal size of a brewery, but it eventually shifted to express the attitude toward brewing that these smaller operations hold. Quality, flavor, and technique are the goals of their activity, not large quantities of homogenous, boring beer. Much like an indie band free from the controlling micromanagement of a record label, microbreweries utilize their freedom to pursue the styles and flavors that most excited them and the consumers who will drink it. Craft breweries tend to look backwards and forwards at the same time, simultaneously reviving long-forgotten traditions while innovating and creating things that are new and novel. It’s in this space where we find some of the most exciting things currently happening in Latvian brewing.
Craft Beer in Riga
Latvia is by no means a large country. You’d be justified in expecting to find much of its craft brewing activity going on in the capital, but as rational a hypothesis as that might be, you would still be wrong. Of the approximately twenty-five institutions that could theoretically comprise the nation’s craft beer produce, only three call Riga their base of operations. That hardly makes for a microbrewing scene. Thankfully, though, that’s not the extent of craft beer in Riga. The many bars and bottle shops who also have an unquenchable thirst for hand-crafted brews are also contributors to the network of beer enthusiasts who make the Latvian capital a surprisingly prime location for sampling craft beer.
As mentioned earlier, the Latvians’ love affair with brewing has been going on for a very long time. Since antiquity the people living on the Daugava have been brewing grain-based drinks, often incorporating the local herbs, spices and berries growing in the surrounding fields and forests. Understanding that history makes the work of breweries like Labietis all the more meaningful. The Riga-based microbrewery takes every opportunity to follow in the steps of their ancestors, working with ingredients like juniper and chokeberry or brewing a smoked beer with malts roasted over an oak-fed fire.
Less explicitly Latvian but equally craft is Bierhaus, a microbrewery and beer pub under American ownership and direction. Gordon VanHoutan began home-brewing beer while at university. The newfound hobby ignited an insatiable passion for crafting beer that would lead him to study under expert brewmasters in southern Germany. Since relocating to Riga and launching Bierhaus, he and his team have begun work on an additional brand called Alkimikis, the avenue for their less traditional creations.
Valmiermuižas Alus subscribes more to the traditional school of light and dark lagers, but even within that space they’re creating some of the finer beers in Latvia. While the styles are more straightforward, the Valmiermuižas team align themselves with the mindset of quality over quantity. They’re up to some pretty interesting stuff as well. Recently buying an abandoned brewery a few hours from Riga, they’ve revitalized brewing operations at one of Latvia’s oldest breweries. The produce of which so far has been totally phenomenal – and much more appealing to palette’s favoring stronger ales styles of America and Britain.
The additional bars and bottle shops in Riga who keep a regular stock of hand-crafted beers are no less important when it comes to furthering the craft cause. The great places to satisfy your cravings are included in our complete guide to craft beer in Riga. We hope you take this city for all that it has, especially where great beer is concerned – it’s in no short supply.