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So, after three weeks exploring Estonia we headed down towards Latvia. After successfully navigating the somewhat antiquated local railway system we arrived in Valmiera in the north-east of the country. One thing we noticed straight away was the number of people around compared to Estonia, which apart from the capital, Tallinn, had been extremely quiet. Valmiera is best known among Latvians for the Valmiermuiža brewery on the outskirts of the town. The brewery offers tours and tasting sessions, but booking in advance is essential if you want an English-speaking guide.
On the day we visited, the only English tour was taking place at 10am, so we dragged ourselves out of bed and started off on the half-hour walk out to the brewery. Our friendly guide, Ieva, explained that the 6 other people supposed to be on our tour hadn’t turned up, so we were getting a private showing! The brewery itself is based in the grounds of an old manor house, but while the logo and branding ooze tradition, they actually only started brewing in 2008.
Ieva showed us round the fairly typical modern brewery set-up which was interesting enough, but we were really here for the tasting session. We were given five beers each, including the brewery’s core light and dark lagers, plus various other styles such as hoppy APAs, rich Baltic porters, and refreshing elderflower radlers.
Our next stop was Cēsis, an ancient town nestled in the middle of the Gauja National Park. We weren’t expecting to find much in the way of craft beer here; in fact, we were somewhat hoping for a couple of days off before Riga. But, with some online sleuthing, Poppy discovered there was indeed a microbrewery in town, Trimpus. It would have been rude not to visit while we were there, and what we found was a classic whitewashed basement bar with a tiny brewery in the back room. There were only two taps pouring while during our visit (they were still on winter opening times despite the 30° heat), but both were very enjoyable: Rietumcēsu (5.6% West Coast IPA) and Māmiņa (5% hefeweizen).
After a couple of days exploring the town and the National Park, it was time to get back on the train and head to Latvia’s capital city, Riga. We’d originally planned to explore some of the bars around the Old Town, but on the walk from the station to our hotel, Poppy spotted an advert for the Latvia Beer Fest which just happened to be taking place that very weekend! Of course, we immediately dropped our plans and went to check it out.
The festival is held in the Vērmanes Gardens, just outside the Old Town, and has apparently been going since 2011. Usually outdoor drinking is strictly prohibited in Latvia, but for a few days each May the park is granted a special license so that the thousands of festival-goers can enjoy their beers in the spring sunshine. More than 30 breweries big and small, mostly from around Latvia but also a couple from further afield, descend on the park to showcase their wares. Each brewery brings their own kit and sets their own prices, so it’s similar to festivals like Sheffield’s own Indie Beer Feast.
All of Latvia’s best craft breweries were in attendance; we sampled beers from the likes of Malduguns, Labietis, Indie Jānis and Viedi. I was particularly impressed with Viedi – my personal favourite of theirs was Piena Ceļš (“Milky Way”), a flavourful 6.9% mango milkshake IPA. Meanwhile, Poppy was a fan of the Iļģuciems Brewery range of honey beers, particularly their festival special infused with cherry and hemp. The festival was a really pleasant surprise, and now we know it’s there it’s well worth another visit in the future!
Another item on our Riga to-do list was the Beer District, which we’d first heard about back at Valmiermuiža. This was a 10-bar stroll around Riga’s New Town which began from the brewery’s “embassy” in the capital. From there, the route took us to some really interesting places: the Labietis tap room showcased all their latest specials, Zobens un Lemess combined Latvia’s finest heavy metal music with some pretty robust beers, while Riga’s hipsters flocked to the trendy Kaņepes Cultural Centre. Probably our favourite place on the route though was Taka, a seriously comfortable bar offering the finest craft beers from all over the Baltics. The DDH Mosaic Pale (6%) from Ārpus Brewery was one of the best single-hopped beers I’ve had in a long time.
Our time in Riga at an end, we headed to the coast, passing through the seaside resorts of Jūrmala and Ventspils. Unfortunately, neither had anything to offer in the way of decent beer so we made our way to Liepāja, our last stop in Latvia. We arrived on a Saturday evening and found a town offering something for drinkers of all persuasions, from beach bars open until 6AM to sports pubs and late-night cafes. From a beer point of view though, the highlight was easily Miezis & Kompānija, an industrial basement bar with 10 taps and more than 100 bottles.
We’ve now arrived in a very sunny Lithuania, so we’ll be back next month with all of our beery adventures from the last of the Baltic states!