When it comes to recession-proof industries, you’d think you couldn’t go broke selling beer to Latvians. But the Covid crisis has made life difficult for many bars, as infection-wary customers and government rules forced them to shut their doors for a long time.
This has been doubly the case in Old Riga, where dwindling tourist numbers have further dried up the supply of thirsty punters. However, one enterprising couple has gone against this flow by opening a grand new tavern in the city’s historic heart.
Despite the unimaginative name, “My Beer” is a refreshingly different venue to the tourist traps which dominated the area before the pandemic. Its proprietors, husband-and-wife team Andrejs and Lienīte Šikors, offer patrons fun times and a sip of their nation’s rich beer-making heritage.
“People think of Belgium as a beer superpower, but Latvia is one too,” says Andrejs. “In fact, we were already brewing before the Belgians even got started.”
For many years, Andrejs headed the Latvian Beer Fraternity industry group, so he is steeped in beer lore. As a former senior official with KNAB, Latvia’s anti-corruption agency, Lienīte has a drier CV. But they longed to open a special tavern together, and after much searching they have leased a 16th century warehouse on quiet, picturesque Alksnāja iela.
A traditional tipple
The premises had previously housed an art gallery, and after doing most of the renovations themselves, the Šikors family has created a place to showcase the best of local and foreign brews. Inspired by the legendary Brussels watering hole Delirium and its 2,000 different beers, “My Beer” offers 900 varieties of the amber nectar, making it the largest beer salon in the Baltic States.
“We have turned an art gallery into a beer gallery,” Andrejs laughs, gesturing toward the shelves of bottles snaking though the interior.
The couple are also on a mission to revive lost beers. After the Second World War, Latvian brewers created Rīgas alus (Riga Beer), which became so popular around the USSR that even Stalin was rumoured to have liked a mug or two. Unfortunately, it disappeared after a messy privatisation in the 1990s, until Andrejs arranged for some food technologists to recreate it from old recipes, and now the pale elixir can be savoured again. He also hopes to bring back other retro brews, like Kurzemes alus, Jūrmalas alus and Aldara Porteris.
“Why come up with new flavours if you can enjoy some great old ones?” Andrejs asks.
With no coffee, tea, wine, spirits or even mineral water served, this is a joint where you know what you’re getting. But there’s something for just about everyone. Lienīte confesses to not being a big imbiber, but she is fond of a Belgian wheat beer with citrus notes which tastes like champagne.
“I like to taste the beers and discover associations so I can make recommendations for the customers – and the ladies like this one very much,” she says.
While foreign visitors have returned to the Old Town, there are nowhere near as many as before the pandemic, when tour groups thronged the cobblestone lanes. But Andrejs thinks this may be a blessing in disguise. The area had become hooked on wealthy visitors, prompting Latvians to vote with their feet and party elsewhere. While “My Beer” has plans for attracting tourists such as degustation events and making a film about Latvia’s breweries, its prices are aimed at local budgets.
“I’m not poor, but I’m not going to go somewhere for a drink with a friend if a round costs me ten euros,” he says.”So I go and find a pub in the suburbs where a beer costs 2 or 3 euros.”
In fact, a pint of local lager comes to as little as 1.70 at “My Beer,” earning it a keen following since it opened in May of 2021. But there are challenges ahead for the local market, too. At present, anyone is welcome to park themselves at the tables outside. But under Latvia’s Covid regulations at the time of writing, only vaccinated people can sit inside, and this could exclude part of the potential clientele.
In any case, the couple’s vision of promoting Latvian beer remains unchanged. Andrejs says that foreign diplomats have complained to him about being served imported wine at official receptions when Latvia has so many excellent beers. And he wants to change how people think about drink.
“Wine has just two ingredients, juice and yeast, while beer has four, which can produce infinite flavour nuances,” he says. “Water can be soft or hard, you can substitute corn, buckwheat, rice or peas for malt, there are over 200 types of hops and 250 beer yeasts. Beer is the stuff of great company and good times, and it is in no way inferior to wine.”