Quenching Thirst in Latvia
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If Latvia has come under your radar as a possible holiday destination, depending on your interests it is most probably due to its complex history, Art Nouveau architecture, or statistically the tallest women in the world. No-one comes to Latvia to try out the cuisine because it is a mix of the heritage left behind by the Germans and Russians. However, it gets more interesting if you are willing to try some classic drinks with a Baltic twist. Let’s go on a short but informative ride that will help you plan a trip to this Baltic country and enjoy it one glass at a time!
It may come as a surprise that the world famous Stolichnaya is made in Latvia. In fact, Latvia produces many other vodka brands and for years vodka was the most popular alcohol among the locals. In the cold climate of Latvia, grains grow better than grapes. There is also a huge influence of the Russian culture impacting drinking habits in Latvia. Put it all together and you get why vodka has been so popular in this country.
Latvians are pagans at heart and they still celebrate Solstices, especially the one in summer, which is the time of the year when the consumption of beer skyrockets. You will find beer mentioned in the vast collection of the ancient Latvian folk songs. Every farmer would make his own beer for the upcoming celebrations and for centuries beer was the most popular alcoholic drink, up until vodka took over. Latvia spent 700 years under the German rule. That could not go unnoticed, hence the strong and thriving beer culture.
Every shop will offer commercial beer brands. What you pick will depend on your taste but most locals would vote for Valmiermuižas alus, some like Tērvetes, Užavas or Bauskas. Most of these will be unfiltered and beware– Latvian beer is most often sold in 0.5 l bottles. Mežpils beer is another popular brand. Although produced by Aldaris, the biggest brewery in Latvia, Mežpils is considered to be the best Aldaris beer by many these days. Try Mežpils Gaišais (light) if you like classics or their porter, which is an excellent example of Baltic porter. It is different than its British siblings and the difference lies in the fact that Baltic Porter is brewed using lager yeasts at low fermentation temperatures.
Craft beer scene has changed drastically over the last few years and the biggest supermarkets will offer you at least a couple of choices. The alcohol content will vary vastly, ingredients will be fancier and bolder, your experience when choosing craft beer will definitely be one to remember. Try anything by Labietis or Malduguns. These two would be the most popular and widely available but there are many others that are worth your time and money. If you don’t know where to start, go to Folkklubs Ala in the Riga Old Town to try their draft beer offer or Valmiermuiža’s Embassy in Riga. The latter can be combined with tasting some contemporary Latvian cuisine as well. Still confused? Then go to the Aussie Pub, pay 10 EUR, and sample 14 Latvian beers in 100 ml glasses to find your favorite.
Wine is gaining more popularity and slowly conquering the title of the most consumed alcoholic drink in Latvia. Imported brands are widely available and you will most probably find your fix if you are looking for something particular, be it made in the old or the new world.
Although Latvia is a home for the world’s most northern open-air vineyard as mentioned in Guinness World Record Book, making grape wine in this country is not easy. Historically, Latvian wines are made from fruit and berries, such as cherries, apples, blackcurrants, raspberries, quince, rhubarbs… Most wines will be sweet or semi-sweet but more and more producers are striving to make dry wines as the taste of consumers is changing and becoming more exquisite. These wines are all made by small producers and one place to choose your bottle is the farmer’s product section Klēts in all Rimi hypermarkets. If you go outside Riga, you can go for a wine tasting in the cave at Līgatnes winery or visit the fancier Abavas winery in the western part of the country. Check their websites for a tour and tasting availability!
Abavas winery offers various locally and internationally awarded drinks. Try their apple wine and cider too, as well as the elegant rhubarb sparkling wine. You might be pleasantly surprised! From their fortified drinks you might want to try Aronia Velvet, which is port wine made from aronia (chokeberries) but, of course, cannot be called port wine as such. They also produce mulled wine and quite a few eau-de-vie options. Abavas products are available in most supermarkets in Riga but if you have the chance, visiting their newly opened cellar near Tukums is highly suggested.
If you are looking for a locally made sparkling made from imported grapes, then choose “Rīgas šampanietis”. It can officially be called champagne (šampanietis) on the label since the producer proved that it is their trademark and renaming it would not make sense and that would be the end of this drink. Funny enough, it worked and now this could be the world’s only champagne that is actually not champagne but is still called champagne if any of this makes sense to you at all. This drink will not be the best sparkling wine you have ever tried but the price and quality balance have made it a popular choice among locals.
Looking for interesting non-alcoholic options? Latvia has a few. Again, you can visit the farmer’s section Klēts in Rimi hypermarkets or find some spots in the Central Market to get various bottled fruit juices. Local favorites include quince juice (or syrup), cranberry, black currant, and sea buckthorn juice. All sour and rich in vitamin C. If you think you don’t like it, just drink it because… it’s good for you!
For sparkling non-alcoholic party drinks choose the lovely Mežezers. It comes in two kinds made of quince and their latest addition to the collection is Mežezers Rose – pink sparkling magic with a hint of rhubarb.
Fancy something extraordinary? Try sparkling birch sap.
Latvia can surprise you if you are open to trying new things. It can also surprise you if you decide you need a bottle of something alcoholic after 10 p.m. Make sure you go to the shop before that because according to the law, shops are not allowed to sell alcohol from 10 p.m. to 8 a.m. Luckily, you will have enough restaurants and bars that will quench your thirst during this time.
[This post has been written by Loreta, the main rebel at the Happy Rebel Life blog and an Instagram account where you can find out more about Latvia and Loreta’s adventures around the world. She also owns the pictures of this article [Except the Birch Sap, owned by the company]. For more info on how and where to eat and drink like a local while travelling, click HERE. If you want to write about food in your place, get in touch with me by email]