Brewing modern traditions with a hint of creativity

Each time you come to Riga, you leave a little of your heart there until one day Latvia’s capital has it all. And a renaissance in artisan food and drinks, innovative chefs and produce defining this Northern region has all helped to shape Latvia’s new personality, is one of the main reasons why.

It is pretty obvious that a beer revolution is happening across the world. Latvia is not immune to this craft beer craze as well – a number of craft breweries are popping up across the country making some really nice craft ales. Today a new generation of brewers is revitalising old beer brewing traditions as part of a broader trend towards local food production. 

Labietis, however, is not your typical brewery of nowadays, brewing beer in the American manner, meaning extra hoppy. Flavored with local ingredients such as heather, yarrow, caraway and juniper, Labietis offers a beer packed with flavor, history and some pagan magic. The brewers here experiment with beer styles that have emerged throughout 12,000 year old history of brewing and modern craft beer trends, introducing new flavors that change the perception of what beer is. If one day you find yourself siting in Labietis, I insist you to try Radzins, made from a typical Latvian wheat bread with caraway; Ausma (Dawn) with a touch of ginger and peppermint or Pļava (Meadow) brewed with local herbs.

This rustic but inventive style of making beer is also an increasing source of inspiration to some of the country’s leading chefs (Martins Ritiņš of famed Riga’s restaurant Vincents is the number one advocate of Labietis beer, offering it side to side with French vintage wines and being very proud of Latvian craft tradition), foodies and beer aficionados.

It is a sunny Thursday midsummer morning when I find myself entering the door of Labietis brewery, located a little bit out of central Riga, in a small creative district under the city’s hippest nightclub Piens. As I say ‘Hi!’ to the man, sitting at the far end of several inches length wooden table in front his laptop, I can’t help but notice the modern looking interior heavily decorated with folk symbols and everything constructed from heavy wood.

Wearing dark relaxed linen shirt, shorts and flip flops, tall and well built, bold, almost barefoot, sun kissed and a little bit viking looking, Reinis Pļaviņš is the master and the brain behind Labietis brewery, who has managed to combine the trend for creating flavor-packed beers with Latvian beer making traditions, meaning some very unique and interesting drinks for everyone to try.

Being an amateur home brewer for several years, Reinis says he found Labietis out of need and interest to experiment with somehing more than traditional beer. The brewers here do typical pale ales, IPAs, and double IPAs of course, but other beers is the key reason that draws people in. 

The name Labietis comes from an old word for a Latvian warrior in pre-Christian times (the Latvian version of Samurai, so they say), as the names of the beers draw strongly on Latvian folk culture, too. It is clear – tradition and history here are important ingredients. While taste and creativity is even more important than ever. Can heritage products be appealing in the modern world and can they offer more than origin and taste?

Reinis, here we are, sitting in this Northern modern looking brewery, talking about beer inspired by pre-Christian beer making traditions and local flavors, I think it is fair to ask what are your sources of creativity and inspiration? 

Well, I feel it would be honest to say that however much Rigans love their city – and nearly a third of Latvia’s population beds down here – our affection also extends to the landscape of forests, lakes and sandy beaches edging the Baltic Sea that surrounds them. We are the nation, which have kept in touch with the myths and magic of it’s pagan past. And that is also where the biggest part of my inspiration comes from. 

Latvians know how to make the most of the brief summer months, when up to 20 hours of daylight means a sudden release and rush, and the dazzling growth of trees, flowers, fruit and grain. The long days and bright nights bring out intensity of taste in the berries, herbs, and mushrooms. There is synergy between city and the countryside, that reflects the Latvian love of nature: even within the city, woods and parks create an archipelago of greenery where carpets of tiny, twinkling wild strawberries and blossoming linden trees are there for the picking. 

I want this to resemble in the beer I am brewing. The taste of nature, feeling, specific place. For example, take Akmenrags in which wild thyme and heather are balanced by a bit of Sladek hops to create an untamed amber ale with a taste that encompasses the savage beauty of the west coast of Latvia that inspired me to bottle the taste and smell of this place. I want people to taste a Latvian forest or meadow, experiment more, discover local flavors, ancient beer tastes and be proud of our heritage. 

And it’s not that easy as you might think. It’s nothing like just going to the countryside and picking all the stuff you find by a handful of each plant you see, put that into beer and voila! You just brewed a beer. It is nothing like that. The beer has to be good. It is not difficult to make beers that are of certain ingredients. It is difficult to make a good beer of certain ingredients.

So, I guess nature and history are probably two main things that inspire you to create Labietis? What is Labietis for you?

With Labietis it’s very easy. We have one basic idea to which I’ll get later but if you look at the historical map of beer we have so called pre-Christian and post-Christian beer. Beer was part of the culture for the ancient Notherners, and one of the possibilities why today the world ended up with the beer spiced only with hops being one of the main ingredients of making beer that is meant to be there for the taste. The whole idea behind hoppy beer is, that hops in traditional medicine work as sleeping pill. 

So the Catholic Church and monasteries in Western and Mid Europe embraced this tradition of flavoring beer with hops for mostly one reason – monks in monasteries used to think that after three or four glasses of beer you don’t wander around so much and go to bed early, you don’t go to a nearby village to sleep with someone’s else wife. Like you are a better Christian if you go to bed early and a little bit drunk. 

It started in Belgium around 8th or 9th century and spread throughout the whole Europe. And that’s where the interesting stopped. And before this time there were a wide range of various beers: aphrodisiac beers, hallucination beers and etc. So, basically, what we’re doing here is trying to reproduce those funny times in beer making when there were less frames in which you have to operate as brewer. Labietis is all about recreating the fun in beer making.  We use a lot of herbal stuff and don’t tie our hands with using only hops.

Do you have any ritual you are performing while creating?

To be truly honest, we don’t have too much of rituals. We are simply trying to make good beer. And if you’re trying to make good beer, you try to do everything more rationally, you know, more or less scientifically. 

Everything is so boring nowadays. You know that there is yeast. It eats ethanol. If a temperature is a bit higher, the yeast would be more aggressive, if a temperature is a bit lower it would be less aggressive, so there will be less alcohol and the beer will be sweeter. Beer making nowadays is a very measurable thing, and if you want to put ritual into that one, it simply means that you’re a mad man. And you shouldn’t be brewing if you’re a mad man (laughs). 

But in the times before people understood how beer is made and how alcohol works, people used to rely on rituals in traditions while brewing beer. There is a Viking tradition that actually pretty much explains a Baltic-German way of seeing how to do things. The Viking way is to yell at the beer while it is fermenting. Let's say, beer is fermenting in some kind of a room and there are people going around, so each time they pass the beer that is fermenting they yell at it. The idea behind this whole thing is to try to awaken the spirit of the grain so the beer would come out stronger or better. Stronger or better at that time were the same thing talking about beer.  

Meanwhile the Baltic tradition is that if you make love while the beer is brewing in its vicinity you get a better result. Basically the idea is that you need to f*ck someone near the fermenter to get a better result. And this one is probably not a bad tradition at all (laughs).

What are the key elements of your creation process?

Nowadays I don’t brew beer in the brewery. I mean I don’t brew big amounts here. I still work on my experimental part and then just scale the recipe for bigger amounts. But usually I never rush it because these recipes they don’t come that fast. It is usually a moment in life when you have a bright moment, you kind of remember it well, it’s sits in your memory for quite a while. Then you kind of try to transport it into taste. I believe it’s how any part of recipe creating process goes, be it soup, stew, piece of cake or beer. It always starts in some kind of inspirational moment that sits in a memory of a chef’s or, like in this case, brewer’s mind. That’s why each of our beers has a brewers name on it.

As I have mentioned before, we use a lot of herbal stuff. So, before I started Labietis, in the beginning I thought it would be kind of a beer pharmacy or call it beer apothecary. The idea was that anybody could get into a bar and ask for a beer that eases stomachache or other similar sicknesses, a beer that has some healing abilities deriving from herbs. Imagine, you have 20 or 30 different types of beer, each is made of a certain type of herb or a mixture of herbs. If you have ever been to homeopathic apothecary, you get the feeling – it was supposed to be the same thing. Just everything would be on tap (laughs). Of course we try to use local herbs and local ingredients as much as we can but I don’t see a problem of bringing ideas in from elsewhere. 

Do you see that there is something that inspires you back from your national traditions, heritage?

Definitely. I was a home brewer before starting Labietis  And my family (and actually many families in Latvia) is using pretty much of herbal teas at home. So, when I started thinking my personal style of beers, first thing that crossed my mind was Latvian affinity to herbal teas. Because for centuries, nature values of distinct herbs have been appreciated highly not only because of their smell or taste but also because of their amazing healing abilities. Linden tea helps to treat flu or cough, or to relieve nervous tension and digestive problems, peppermint tea has sedative and antiseptic effects and heather tea is used for cold and cough, it is also sedative and improves one's sleep. You know, hops don’t grow too well here or they grow in the wild and don’t have too much of bitterness that is necessary for beer making. 

When you think of beer, for those, familiar with the beer making process, this is very well known, that beer is some kind of fermented hop tea. So, I kind of started asking myself, if I go home and see so many different teas in my tea cupboard than why should I make my beer from only one of those teas? And maybe I could mix some of these teas to get a different taste? I started to get deeper into that herbal medicine thing. And you know, when you see those tastes coming out nicely together and you can make something unique taste-wise, then you know you’re on the right path. 

Is it all about the uniqueness or is it more of tradition? 

Well, I’ve read everything there is about beer making tradition in Latvia and there is not much of evidence in documents, folklore or archeological excavations about beer making out of herbs. There is only a mentioning of juniper and wild rosemary while making beer, so you can say that everything else here is totally made up. We made some nice furniture, put ethnic symbols and Latvian signs. Of course we are very well educated in beer history and stuff like that, but the rest of it all is totally made up. Even the recipes. So, yes, I guess it is unique in some way.


[Egle] My personal favorite beers from Labietis are Upeņu Ragana (Blackcurrant Witch) - crimson colored beer with fresh blackcurrant juice added during the fermentation. Fruitful sweet and sourness is balanced by lightly caramelized malts and a pinch of Citra hops; and Zintnieks (Wizard) - the ancient whole-hive heather mead. Legend tells that Odin - then a regular deity, went overseas to a wizard to partake of the "mead of inspiration". The wizard asked for something precious in return. The result was Odin - the one eyed god of wisdom and king of all gods.

Alus darbnica LABIETIS
Brewpub: Aristīda Briāna iela 9a-2, Riga
Market stall in Riga Central Market, Nēģu iela 7, Riga


*This the full version of article Brewing Modern Traditions With a Hint of Creativity
NWIND (10, Nothern Rituals), 2016. Read the article online.

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