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SVIEKATA ( History of Beer in Lithuania )

Reprinted, with permission from Vytis - The Knight, January, 2000
Written by Stephany Gutauskas
Editor's Note: The article begins with a history of beer, but I wanted to include only that part which concerns Lithuania.

Historically, brewing in Lithuania dates back to the 11th century. As in western and central Europe, monks’ beer brewed in monasteries and alewives’ beer brewed in the cottage kitchen eventually gave way to beer produced by commercial breweries.

In Lithuania today, the largest breweries are Kalnapilis, established in Panevezys in 1902; Svyturys, established in Klaipeda in 1784; Utenos Alus, established in Utena in 1977; Ragutis, established in Kaunas in 1853; Vilniaus Tauras, located in Vilnius; and Gubernija, established in Siauliai in 1786. The major breweries produce about 50 different brands of beer, both light-colored and dark with consumers preferring the paler-colored beers. There are also about 300 regional breweries which produce dark “village beer” chiefly in the northern region of Birzai as well as in other regions of Lithuania. Most Lithuanian brewed beer is consumed in Lithuania. Very little is exported. Kaliningrad, at one time, was the chief foreign market, but stiff excise taxes dried up the Russian demand. Currently, Latvia is the major importer of Lithuanian beer.

While Lithuania was still a part of the U.S.S.R., Soviets invested in vodka distilleries rather than in beer breweries located on Lithuanian soil; thus, when vodka plants were getting modernized, many Lithuanian breweries were producing beer with old, outdated equipment. During 1970-90, one major brewery, Kalnapilis, replaced virtually all of its old equipment and modernized its operation, but Kalnapilis was the exception rather than the rule.

At the time of independence in 1991, the majority of Lithuanian-produced beer was of low quality. In some bars and restaurants, waiters watered down beer before serving it to patrons. Also, at that time, little campaigning was done to advertise Lithuanian beer products. As a result, foreign competitors, with breweries run with modernized equipment and advanced technology, were able to offer quality beer to Lithuanians at a reasonable price. In 1992, imported beer had captured 35% of the Lithuanian market.

Foreign competition galvanized Lithuanian breweries into action. In the 1990’s, foreign investors merged, with a few Lithuanian breweries, as was the case with Kalnapilis’ 1994 merger with Baltic Beverages Holding consisting of two northern beer producing giants, Sweden’s Pripps Ringness and Finnish Hartwell, or they gained controlling shares in the stock and ownership of a few Lithuanian breweries, as was the case with Estonian investment fund Hansa Investments and Baltic Beverage Holding’s buying 51% of the shares and control over Utenos. With new capital, Lithuanian breweries, whether foreign controlled or not, were able to renovate, modernize plants and equipment, apply technology (for example, advances in the glass industry aided production of beer bottles that weighed less yet were more breakage resistant), and improved the overall quality of their beer. Quality of Lithuanian-brewed beer improved so much in the 1990’s that foreign brewed beer dropped to 3.5% of market share in 1997.

With foreign mergers or takeovers of several Lithuanian breweries, there also came some alteration in beer recipes. Kalnapilis’ beer-brewing formulas changed when it merged with Baltic Beverages Holding. Hagutis also changed its recipes after obtaining a license from Pilsner Urquell of Pilzen, the Czech Republic, to produce the Gambrinus brand of beer.

As Svyturys is the only large Lithuanian brewery existing today which does not rely on foreign investment to run its operation, it still retains its own formulas and manages to produce a distinctive Lithuanian beer. On the whole, it seems that Lithuanians are slowly losing the unique taste of true Lithuanian beer which Audrius Vidzys, Vice-President of the Lithuanian Brewer’s Association, describes as “a little more sweet than the foreign beers because it is less fermented, and some sugar still remains in it; it has more body.” Lithuanian beer typically contains about 20% sugar, foreign beers about 10%.

In the 1990’s, Lithuania breweries discovered the importance of advertising and promoting consumption of Lithuanian beer, and they began aggressive marketing campaigns. In recent years, Vilnius played host to biannual beer festivals, similar to the German Oktoberfest, which introduced thousands to the virtues of Lithuanian beer. In 1998, Kalnapilis conducted the first Beer School seminar in Lithuania to provide unbiased information about beer, in laymen’s terms, to the public and to promote beer drinking among Lithuanians.

Gradually, throughout the 1990’s, Lithuanians have changed their beer drinking habits. Under the Soviets, it was considered bizarre when a Lithuanian woman drank beer in public. In the late 1990’s, it is common to see women sipping beer in bars and restaurants. Furthermore, Lithuanians slowly changed their attitude toward beer. No longer a workers’ drink, beer became in the Lithuanian mind, everyman’s drink. With patriotic fervor, Lithuanians were increasingly becoming discriminating in their taste for and consumption of Lithuanian-brewed beer. Yet, in 1994, when the Lithuanian government first imposed an excise tax on beer, beer consumption decreased, from 1996 to 1998, when excise tax remained stable, Lithuanians increased their beer consumption. Throughout the decade, with 63% of consumer drinking bottled beer in the home as opposed to nearly 27% imbibing beer drawn from kegs in bars and restaurants, the demand for bottled beer rose. To satisfy consumer demand, the large breweries began running at or near full capacity.

In 1997, local beer sales increased by 20%, and all Lithuanian breweries showed a profit. In the early 1990’s, per capita beer consumption among Lithuanians was 32 liters; in 1997, it stood at 44 liters. Renovation, modernization, introduction of new and advanced technologies, extensive advertising, consumer education, a stable excise tax, and an increasingly chauvinistic taste for Lithuanian-made beer have all contributed to making the beer industry a vital part of Lithuania’s modern economy during the past decade and will most likely continue to do so in the future.

Vytis Editor’s Note: Lithuanian beer has won awards in may European beer tasting contests, the latest was held this past fall in Germany. “Lithuania is a beer drinkers paradise”, quoted a group of American tourists visiting Vilnius this past summer)


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