My Lithuania Beer Adventure Part IV – Kauno Alus

As day one drew to a close on my Lithuanian beer adventure, Tomas, Big M and I visited our fourth and final brewery. Having been to Apynys, Avilys and Genys, our last stop of the day was one of Lithuania’s oldest running breweries – Kauno Alus.

Kaunas’ Oldest Brewery

Set just off Laisvės Alėja (Freedom Avenue), and within shouting distance of Kaunas Old Town, Kauno Alus is very centrally located. And, at 170 years old, this brewery is the oldest in Kaunas. It just pips nearby Volfas Engleman by a mere 7 years.

An established name in Lithuania, Kauno Alus is a much more traditional brewery than the previous three I visited on day one of my trip. Although the product range is a decent size, they are all predominantly based on light and dark lagers.

As the band of three made our way to Kauno Alus, there were two things that struck me. The age of the buildings that housed the brewery, and the fact that it was buildings. Multiple. This brewery was the biggest we visited during my trip.

Tomas and co. modelling the plastic coats

Given the size of the brewery, it also meant they could provide a more formal, guided tour. We were greeted at the main door by two people from Kauno Alus, including the newly appointed Head of Marketing. Once inside we were encouraged to put on a very fetching white plastic coat, to avoid contamination. Then our tour began!

Traditional Meets Modern

The first stop on our tour was to see where the grain was mashed. Some of the equipment here dated back years. Our tour guides explained that some parts of the brewery, due to age and heritage, were protected by the government, and therefore couldn’t be modernised.

One of the original mash tuns

We then visited the kettle, which was a much newer part of the brewery. In stark contrast to the old mash tun, here they also have a  whirlpool. A whirlpool is a modern method of separating hop waste from the liquid wort that goes to fermentation.

As we continued our tour, we were then taken into the fermenting rooms. As the style of beers brewed at Kauno Alus are lager, rather than ale, the temperature of the room was kept pretty cool. But, in an era where fermentation temperatures are controlled within closed fermentation tanks, why did the room need to be kept cold?

Well, the fermentation technique at Kauno Alus is open vessel. That’s right, Yorkshire Squares! Ok, technically they don’t call them Yorkshire Squares, but it’s the same fermentation style as some traditional UK breweries, like Black Sheep Brewery, in Masham, North Yorkshire.

Open vessel fermentation

Kauno Alus is the only brewery in Lithuania that continues to use this method. Originally the open vessels were made from black iron but have been modernised to aluminium. The capacity in these is 21 tonnes (about 21,000 litres), and fermentation lasts around a week.

Hillside Lager Conditioning

Another fascinating and historical element to the brewery is the lager conditioning tanks. These are used to condition the lager after it has finished fermentation.

The tanks are as old as the brewery itself and sit within the hill side where the brewery is built. The reason for this is back in the old days of the brewery, there was no refrigeration technology. This meant storing the tanks in the hill side kept them cool. Often, the brewery would also collect ice from the nearby rivers in winter to keep the temperature cool. It was a wonderful experience to walk in between the tanks and feel a part of the brewery’s history.

The lager tanks hold around 6 tonnes (6000 litres each), and there are four rooms with multiple vessels within.

Lager conditioning tanks

The final part of the tour was to see the on-site bottling plant. Lithuania operates a recycling scheme, and the majority of the 500ml glass bottles that Kauno Alus uses, comes from recycling. Most of the bottling process is automated. However, there are a few people hired simply to watch the bottling line, and make sure no bottles with rubbish stuffed inside managed to sneak through the cleaning machine!

Ragutis

With the tour at an end, it was time to hit the tasting room and sample some of the Kauno Alus beers.

The tasting room was similar in style to a traditional British pub. Carpeted, with wooden tables and cushioned stools. There was also a barrel nearby, with the word ‘Ragutis’ carved into it – the Lithuanian God of Beer.

Bottle cap art

In keeping with the traditional styles brewed here, we were given samples of pale and dark lager beers.

Some of the more common ones to look out for to understand the styles brewed here include Kauno Sviesusis. This is a 5% ABV pale, clean and crisp lager, sweet with a malt focus and quite easy drinking.

We also tried Burmistro, a 7% ABV dark lager (labelled a porter), a sweet, caramel, boozy beer. And, Trakų Pilies Premium which is another pale lager, named after nearby Trakai castle.

Day One Ends

The Kauno Alus brewery is a fascinating mix of history and modernisation. From the old mash tuns and lager tanks, to the modernised open fermentation, whirlpool and bottling line.

I do feel, though, that Kauno Alus has so much untapped potential. The focus on traditional pale and dark lagers keeps the brewery firmly in its roots, and they do it well. But, I think it would be exciting to see Kauno Alus branch out a bit and try brewing modern craft beers. Like elsewhere, craft beer popularity is soaring in popularity in the Baltic countries. With already solid distribution chains, and large brewing capacity, Kauno Alus has an opportunity that I don’t think is being exploited at the moment.

The bottling line

So, one day, one city, four breweries and I lost count of the number of tasters we got to try. The first day of my Lithuanian beer adventure will live long in the memory. Kaunas has some very special breweries!

For day two, Tomas and I would leave Big M to go it alone, and take a trip to Lithuania’s capital city, Vilnius. Here, I’d get to visit three more breweries. The first one was a truly unique and fascinating experience, but, as always, you’ll have to wait for the next part to read about that.

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