Riga Through A Hailstorm: On The Reporter’s Red-Eye Life

Thursday, 16 July

It’s the first time I’ve heard an entire airplane applaud a safe landing, and I’m sure I didn’t sleep through any turbulence. After an early flight out of Edinburgh and over five hours in London’s wifi-less Luton Airport, what I’m convinced is hell’s mop closet, I’m safely in Riga, Latvia, ready to cover the 9th Positivus music festival for The Skinny. There’s the kind of naïveté in it, the clapping, that makes my still hands look jaded – as if the miracle of flight really is a miracle to these nor’Eastern Europeans – and in fact it reminds me of naïveté‘s etymology, from the Latin nativus, “not artificial”: it’s honest applause. And what service employees deserve our thanks and amazement more? Quickly I’m ready to adopt the attitude, this way of being, that recognizes the incredible for what it is, everyday occurrence or no.

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The Beers and Other Boozes of Riga – From Black Balsam to Baltic Porters

Öö, Põjahla – 10.5% ABV, €5.00 (pub price) (Estonia) 


I found Öö at Vest, about a 20 minute walk from my hotel, the Tallinik.  I knew I couldn’t go wrong with the craft beer selection here – the place is a craft kitchen and coffee shop catering to polite bikers, foosball players, even people seeking a haircut from the pierced and tatted in-house “Kockout” barbers (shuttered by the time I rolled in, a little before 10).  These Estonian craft brewers are of a type popping up like mushrooms throughout Europe – young, inventive, raised on the best of the continent’s unimaginably old and often monk-affiliated brews but enamored with American-style inventiveness and derring-do – and, usually, American hops (see P’s India Pale Ale and San Diego Session IPA).  When Europeans follow American brewers into new experiments, the results are often actually a return – back to the days of high medievally ABVs and big tastes for barons, Vikings, etc.  Thus Öö offers “An Imperial Baltic Porter as dark as the Estonian winter nights. Strong enough to keep you warm through the cold evenings.”  Öö indeed.

Mixing malts – Pale ale, Munich, Carafa II Special, Special B, Chocolate malt, Crystal 300, Demerara sugar, according to their website – makes this one darkly complex, though you might not notice it at first: in the initial sips African-style bitter coffee notes will dominate only to be shocked into submission by a thick, rye, kvass-like sweetness.  And then of course there’s the booze taste, assertive, warming, cheeky.  Some might find it as unpleasantly boozy as some of the crasser Scotch ales – but the burnt-sugar body helps with this.  As bold as North Coast’s Old Rasputin (though not as well balanced) this hits the chocolate, toffee, smoke, and currant notes of some of the best Imperial porters, though you might be too pleasantly intoxicated (by the flavor, the flavor) to notice them without trying.  Served in a corpulent little snifter, this one’s a postprandial tipple for sure.

Tumšais Alus, Valmiermuiža – 5.8% ABV, €1.35 (shop price) (Latvia)

After leaving Vest, Riga’s hippest coffeeshop/biker bar/craft kitchen/barber’s, I found a little below-street-level shop selling beers and liquors in the front and pouring pints for patrons in a back room (sort of like the new tasting room at Buffalo’s Hertel Ave. Village Beer Merchant, perhaps) – it was well after 10, and the woman behind the counter agreed to sell me the bottle, only if I “quickly bag, bag quickly.”  I chose the older (brewing since 1763) Valmiermuža as a comedown from Vest’s powerful Pohjala – and it was exactly that.  At about half the ABV and half the heaviness, it delivered the dark rye malts I’d come (…minutes before) to love in Baltic porters, without Pohjala’s formidable kvass-like sweetness.


The Cesu is a local beer that came with a haughty rcommendation – really a dismissal – from the bartender at the Radisson’s 26th floor bar, renowned for its views of Riga. The beer wasn’t bad – basically a high quality pilsner with a sweeter body, served weizen-style, with definite notes of hay.  It might have been better paired with my meal that night, pork sausage, tangy kraut, and boiled potatoes.

Gaišais Speciãlais, Bauskas Alus – 4.8% ABV, €1.35 (shop price) (Latvia) Bauskas Alus have been brewing since 1981, and came to my attention recommended by a Vecrīga (Old Riga) liquor store clerk as a possible substitute for the Brengulis I was seeking.  The Gaišais Specialais pours a rich honey color and smells slightly more of yeast than it tastes – subtler in taste than, say, some of the American saisons I’m used to – though the yeast backbone adds interest to the lager malt body, making a solid beer, remarkable if one’s remark is something like, “Hmm … quite good.”  It would pair well with potatoes and sausage, with Latvia’s sweet kraut, for light afternoon sipping during a summer hailstorm. Tumšais Speciãlais, Bauskas Alus – 5.5% ABV, €1.35 (shop price) I prefer this “dark special” to its lighter kin.  The tumšais pours a cola color and with a cola-malt sweetness – surprisingly light drinking for a dark beer, with a palatable but punch-packing ABV.  Barley malt, classic continental hops, and cask flavors wrestle it out as you sip, but the quiet riot mellows sweetly by the time you’ve swallowed.  A nice alternative to a pils or wheat beer to pair with your classic Baltic desu un kartupeļiem fare. Rīgas Black Balsam and Black Balsam Currant – 45-30% ABV, €1.99 (.04 L) How I do love the allegedly medicinal liquers of continental Europe.  Raised with the hazy conviction that whiskey mixed with black tea and honey is a cure for just about any ailment, I was never a stranger to the more shamanistic applications of alcohol, but the Irish flu shot just doesn’t hold the same mystic interest as, for example, Kräuterlikör, which our Deutsche Mother Brigitte gave to Steve, Matthias and I a year ago, while Steve suffered some ailment of Dostoevskian obscurity and seriousness. Riga’s Black Balsam is roundly maligned on some travel forums – some say locals “inflict” it on travelers – but people here actually seem to like it enough to have preferences between the varieties, and while they rarely drink it straight, the currant variety is popular in cocktails.  Pure vodka mixed with an esoteric concoction of some two dozen herbs, roots, and oils, Black Balsam is so fresh you might feel you’ve actually been chewing on the plants.  “[E]xceptionally smooth and velvety on the palate,” the website says – which is certainly misleading.  The liquor smells powerfully of anise, and linden and valerian will emerge as you a take a sip, which will be velvety, if you can imagine someone taking an herb- and vodka-soaked strip of velvet and scrubbing your throat with it.  To it’s credit, it’s not at all foul – just strong – and one does feel a bit better after indulging in high noon tipple, particularly after a 2 a.m. bus ride back from Salacgrīva, head still pounding from Camo & Krooked’s drum-and-base assault.  Mixed with coffee, it’s even better, a surprising treat for fans of the Irish coffee (whiskey, not Bailey’s) with the herbal flavors still cutting through even the strongest brew and making you feel better about drinking, maybe, in the forenoon.  It makes on think of Dylan Thomas and Louis MacNeice sitting in a parlor with their slippers on. Sweeter, lighter on the ABV, and with a less obviously herbal character, Balsam makers marker the “Currant” variety to Riga’s youngsters, hoping to hook another generation on the tipple.  Infinitely more drinkable, RBBC is good enough to enjoy on its own, especially if you’re a bunch of degenerates from the British press trying to amuse yourselves on the 1.5 bus ride from Riga to Salacgrīva. I’m told it’s also good in cocktails.


Your humble correspondent braces himself for Positivus Day Three with an afternoon Brengulu.

Brengulu Alus – €1.75 (.5L) (beer “island” price)

This one came highly recommended, and it was the only beer I actively sought, rather than stumbled upon.  It took me until noon on Sunday to find it – it was at a little shop called the “Alus Stacija” on the Marijas iela, selling peanuts, beef jerkies, and ales in many sizes, from .3L to a full 1L.  Bar stools seemed unused – patrons stood around three weather-beater barrels outside the shop, throwing back their pints at a remarkable rate.  The anticipated ale did not disappoint, though it was the sweetest yet – clearly this is characteristic to the region, and the Brengulu was an outstanding example.  As some readers might have noticed, I have a strong bias for American style IPAs, and anything hop-heavy: the Baltic beers were nothing like this, yet I didn’t dream of high IBUs and hop-cones once the entire trip.

Every Starbucks in Edinburgh (A Celestial Cartography)

I should start by apologizing to my friend and frequent traveling partner, Steve Coffed.  I used to give him grief every time he suggested going into a Starbucks, anywhere in the world.  The coffee, I said, is inconsistent from city to city – and nothing to write home about even at its best.  The atmosphere can be sterile, the clientele often a mix of high schoolers, bluetoothing businessmen, and the unfriendly type of medical student.  But shortly after I came to Edinburgh (a city awash in espresso, with enough comfy unpretentious top-notch java joints to give anyone a caffeine headache), something changed: basically, my parents sent me Starbucks gift cards.

What can we send our poor starving postgrad son? they thought, Our son drinking pint after pint of Tennent’s Lager, because it’s only £2.50?  Money?  No, that would send the wrong message, he’ll think he can come home and move right back in … So they settled on Starbucks gift cards, and I settled back into a comfortable middle class lifestyle – at least, that’s what it feels like every time I pass beneath that fish-woman’s spreading tails to wait for a cup with my name on it, or whatever variation of a loosely A-sounding name these Scots come up with, from “Owen” to “Hadrian’s Wall.”  I started to take my Starbucks breaks further afield from the university, trying to see if the world’s biggest and best-known coffee chain could produce any significant change in atmosphere.  A project began to take shape: I would visit and review each Starbucks from New Town to Newington, and share my findings with the world.  [Nota: I’m not the first with this obsession.  See the folks at Every Single Seattle Starbucks.]  I found out that the Starbucks locations scattered across Edinburgh do vary, if sometimes subtly, in atmosphere and clientele – even while some franchises in Edinburgh are within a Frisbee-toss of one another- and even more interesting, my Starbucks survey soon turned into a new way of mapping this strange and diverse city: A Celestial Cartography of Corporate Coffee.  Even if I can offer nothing more than tips on hidden views, rush hours to avoid, and, of course, musings on jams and jellies, I hope something in what follows is of some small value.

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Yer Average Punter’s Gustatorial Guide to One Day in London

If you’re familiar with things like power checking, tax loopholes, and the way a Maserati feels in fourth gear, then you don’t need this guide – you can afford your bad taste.  If you’re a philistine with a tin ear, a corduroy tongue, seasonal allergies, and a general indifference to those moments – a cloud passing long enough to turn a green leaf golden, a certain shiver when all the elements of a night, a flavor, a temperature, a wavelength, Blood Alcohol Content, add to something greater than the sum of those parts – when life becomes, somehow, art, then neither will you have any use for this.  But if ye’r an average punter like me: read on.

Like any cultural capital, London offers an embarrassment of delights for any epicure possessed of a little pocket change and a fluency in bus and subway routes.  So much is this the case with London that one couldn’t squeeze all juice out of this city given a whole lifetime and a busload of Magic Bullets.  There are near-infinite combinations of sights and tastes to take in even in 24 hours, but I’ve decided to put together – actually based on four days of “research” in the city – a sketch of one day balancing an average punter’s pocketbook, comfort, and gastronomical enjoyment in the city.
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A Month Back in Buffalo, the City Formerly Known as …

I didn’t miss Buffalo until news of Snowvember crossed the Atlantic, and found its way onto a BBC report.  The autumn blizzard didn’t put Buffalo on the map, but it did give my European friends a better understanding of New York State geography.  For months, each introduction had followed a predictable pattern:

European: “So, where are you from?”

Me: “Buffalo, New York.”

E: “Oh, cool!”

M: Cool?  No, there must be some – 

E: “Like, Manhattan?”

M: “No.  Like as far from Manhattan as Edinburgh is from Paris.  Like, Niagara Falls.”

E: “Ohhh – Niagara Falls.”

Once Snowvember hit I’d introduce myself as a Buffalonian and meet with a kind of reverence (even from the Scandinavians!).  Scots would say, “Ye had sum radge snow there, eh?”  “Looks like it,” I’d say – and I wished that I was back home, shoveling it.  I read my old friend and colleague Kevin Daley’s narrative account of Canisius College’s “snow days for days,” and what has already become a legendary snowball fight in the Canisius quad.  It was a clear November night in Edinburgh – balmy, a Buffalonian might say, in the upper 40s Fahrenheit.  I poured myself a mug of hot chocolate.  It felt like a lie.  By late November, after a trip spanning five months and four countries – with no breathers in between – I was ready to come home.

Photo courtesy Robert Kirkham, The Buffalo News.  For more photos of Snowvember 2014, check out the BN gallery.

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