German traces in Latvia: German art and Latvian craft in Valmiermuiža

German brewers have a good reputation abroad, Latvia included. A master brewer from Baden is currently working at the Valmiermuiža brewery with a high degree of success.

Matthias Saile guides guests through the Valmiermuiža brewery near Valmiera, in northern Latvia. Proud and beaming, the master brewer demonstrates his polished brewing pots. They only put hops, barley malt and water in there. “Our beer is made strictly following the 1516 German beer purity law,” says Saile.

For eight years now, this German brewer has been making amber-colored beer with a malty taste and a lightly bittersweet undertone in the brewery 100 km northeast from Rīga. His personal recipe is used to brew this as well as the other eight remaining varieties the small brewery offers.

They started making beer in Valmiermuiža in 2008. At the time, Saile made almost two dozen varieties of beer, and out of these tasters handpicked the most agreeable one for the Latvian palate. In spring 2009 the Valmiermuiža Amber Lager was released into the market, and the Dark Lager was added a year later. Now the range has been expanded with the Wheat Ale, Winter Bock, Dark Smoked Lager, ales and an elderflower shandy as well as different fruit and berry sodas.

All of the varieties are made with considerate methods; it is mostly hand labor. “We want to brew natural beer that Latvians will like,” says Valmiermuiža owner Aigars Ruņģis. It took him two investors and three million euros to turn the Valmiera Manor – which Catherine the Great gave to Peter August, Duke of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Beck and Field Marshal in the Russian army, in 1762 – into a small brewery.

It seemed like a crazy idea. At the time of the crisis, Latvia was among the hardest-hit EU economies. Furthermore, according to statistics Latvians are much more measured than their European counterparts as concerns beer consumption. But the young entrepreneur was counting on the skill of his master brewer from Germany, and on the quality taste of his beer. To this, he added a marketing conception based on history and local tradition.

Success was swift indeed. Within just a few years, Valmiermuiža was able to carve a small niche in the Latvian beer market. Today, Valmiermuiža’s beer is very popular in restaurants and beer bars across the country. It regularly ranks among the best in surveys and tastings. During a visit in summer 2013, German president Joachim Gauck was likewise convinced about the quality of this beer.

As brewing is not taught professionally in Latvia, Matthias Saile has taken practical training in his own hands, initiating local workers into the mysteries of beer brewing and malt production. For this, the brewery has been awarded a prize by the German-Baltic Chamber of Commerce. 

The brewer, born in the Emmendingen town in Baden-Württemberg, initially learned the craft at a brewery in Riegel am Kaiserstuhl. In October 2016, Matthias Saile celebrated the 30th anniversary since he started in this line of work. But he is not about to slow down, even now working hard at new recipes.

Visitors can taste Valmiermuiža’s beer in the Beer Kitchen at the former granary and by visiting the brewery. There is another Valmiermuiža Beer Kitchen at the Miera iela square in Rīga. They offer a tasting menu with appropriate beer. This way, brewery owner Ruņģis is trying to improve beer culture in Latvia.

The German Traces series was first published as part of the Goethe Institut in Rīga project “German Footprints in Latvia” ("Vācu pēdas Latvijā" www.goethe.de/vacu-pedas). The linked mobile application "German Footprints in Latvia" can be downloaded at www.ej.uz/vp-iOS and www.ej.uz/vp-Android.

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