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.


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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Buffalo, Books & Beer

There was, not terribly long ago, something called the “Buffalo Trail.”  In a way it had everything to do with pioneers, but not of the Laura Ingalls Wilder variety.  The Buffalo Trail was a lecture circuit that grew out of the New England “lyceum” debate scene of the first half of the 1800s, and its regulars included people like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.  The circuit was named after Buffalo because Buffalo was a big deal – it was on the literary map.

Perhaps this is a coincidence, but the “Buffalo Trail” earned its name only a short time before the Queen City of New York State became one of the nation’s largest beer producers.  (See Forgotten Buffalo, Buffalo Spree, and Artvoice for more on that fascinating subject.)  I don’t know if the founders of B3 had this in mind when they set out to bring Buffalo’s beer renascence together with “untapped” elements in Buffalo’s writing-and-reading scene, but it makes their literary endeavor even more poetic.

Two Buffalo writers – Matt Higgins, author of Bird Dream, a book about parachute-less wingsuit pilots, and Brian Castner, author of the Long Walk, a memoir about his time as a bomb technician in Iraq – realized not long ago that the Buffalo literary scene is too much geared toward the “bowtie crowd,” with stuffy atmospheres and intimidating authors, while event organizers struggle to get writers to the Nickel City – despite our supportive arts community, literary history, and charms of food, drink, people, and architecture – because Buffalo is too far off the modern-day circuits.  Or there’s a stigma or something.  Or a curse.  Whatever.

Like the greatest writers, all of whom set out to write the books the wanted to write, Matt and Brian want to bring Buffalo the sort of literary event they’d want to attend (and: spoiler alert: you’ll want to attend this too).  “We just get together, drink some beers, talk about the last book we read,” says Brian.  See the video below for more about their project:

If that convinced you, you can stop reading and donate here:

Meanwhile, I’ll keep droning on for the folks still riding the fence, clicker fingers frozen over “Contribute.”

We all know about Mark Twain (and often act like he spent much more time in Buffalo than he really did); fewer know that William Wells Brown, the first African American novelist, lived on Buffalo’s North Division Street; and very few Buffalonians know about the Buffalo Trail.  By my measure, too few of us know just how many authors live and work in Buffalo today.

And how many do we regularly sit down and share a pint with?

B3 promises to put Buffalo back in touch with the wider literary world, and Buffalonians in closer communion with their own hometown writers – all while celebrating books and beer.

Now, this isn’t a Buffalo-bashing post.  (Twenty-fourteen would be a poor time for that, wouldn’t it?)  Our literary scene is noble and well-supported; it’s a strong branch of the always-interesting always-evolving Buffalo arts scene.  But as Matt and Brian note, our literary events sometimes lack, ah, yeast.

Just Buffalo does great work bringing big-name authors to town, and novelist and Canisius College Creative Writing Director Mick Cochrane, with the help of the Hassett family and other contributors, continues to bring authors who seem to always come shortly before winning an award (like recent visitor Phil Klay) or shortly after (like last year’s guest Tracy K. Smith).  These authors, from Colm Tóibín and Seamus Heaney to Dean Bakopoulos and Joyce Carol Oates, came to define my career at Canisius – their visits were the highlights of the year.  But Just Buffalo woos its authors with huge audiences and huge paychecks (at least from a Buffalo perspective, people), while Dr. Cochrane combines his charm, skills at the genre of “author introduction,” and some rare voodoo which remains an object of mystery to his admirers and, I assume, competitors alike.  But with B3, Buffalo’s literary scene could offer authors a Rust Belt-style opportunity they wouldn’t find in San Fran or New York – a new “let’s talk about books and life and stuff while drinking beer” way of putting on literary events – bowties permitted but not required.  The new Resurgence Brewing Company, which has since its debut this summer kept solid and surprising beers flowing into (and out of) its spacious West Side beer garden, offers the perfect venue.

But if a Buffalo-style lit-readin’ and beer-drinkin’ tradition like this is going to get from beer mat sketch to reality, it will need leadership, an influx of cash, and major recognition in the community.

Luckily, Matt and Brian have the leadership thing figured out.  We can help with the rest.

So, again, click to donate, chip in, get your ticket, whatever.  $5 buys entrance to one of the “spring semester” events; $20, a ticket and a B3 pint glass; and so on until $500 to nab entrance to a session, a pint glass, a t-shirt, signed copies off all three spring semester books, and a dinner in Buffalo with Matt, Brian, and a visiting author before heading to Resurgence for beer and conversation with the rest of the community (who will be jealous, in a neighborly way).

See you on the Buffalo Trail.

Stirling Castle, featuring a lesson in rugby and several aphorisms

St. Andrew’s Day, celebrating the patron saint of Scotland (the one with the jaunty cross), is for many of us at unis across the country a celebration of the end of our first semester’s classes, and the free museum openings and cultural events from the highlands to the lowlands, from Fraserburgh to the Firth of Forth, make this an excellent opportunity to take a break before papers and exams.  With exactly that in mind, I booked a Megabus ticket for Stirling (£4 round trip) to take advantage of free entrance to Stirling Castle, about which I knew nothing, other than that Mel Gibson once captured it from the British.

After a drive of about an hour and 10 minutes (reading the critic Johannes Voelz on Emerson – I couldn’t make a complete escape from Uni) I started off from the Goosecroft bus station below the Thistle Shopping Centre and did my best to find the castle – as always, in Scotland, without a functioning Google Maps.  I managed somehow to avoid the charming, busy, shop- and pedestrian-filled “Old Town” and wandered instead into a grimy fogged slum of massage parlors and solicitors of the Saul Goodman variety, and also caught no sight of the castle – a true feat, as this massive hulk of different stone structures thrown up across seven or so centuries occupies the highest point in the town.  I was expecting something like the dramatic Edinburgh Castle, visible from just about anywhere.  Instead I found a few shuttered pubs and a betting office already open at 11.  But I did stumble on a sight that made me catch my breath – at least I’m fairly sure it was this, and not the endless incline of the cobblestone street: the Wallace Monument appeared nobly on a promontory in the valley below, only a few shades darker than the mist-wreathed hills all around it.

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