“Patron is coming to Vilnius!” Glorious tidings for beeroisseurs and beer nuts. They shared this intelligence as though it were some kind of secret. The joy was acute for those who had tried beer from Pasvalys and for those who had heard rumors about the witty beer brewer Valentas—Our Patron.
Beer making in Lithuania goes back to the Middle Ages. The first commercial beer breweries are mentioned in seventeenth century written sources. In that era, brewers became established and strove to fund expanded operations, improved recipes, and ambitious marketing.
In those times, almost every family in the country brewed its own beer. Each household kept closely its beer recipe and brewing secrets. Beer needed no explanation. Nor does it need any today. We still talk beer and beer flavor, and share stories about the most successful brewers.
In the fifth year of Lithuanian independence, young Valentas Vaškevičius, a home appliance repairman, decided (like many residents of Pasvalys) to try his hand at beer brewing. His brother-in-law, Virginijus Kernagis, somehow got ahold of an old beer recipe. Later, Virginijus became the first Šnekutis brewing technologist.
The yeast came from Valentas’s farmer relatives. Šnekutis uses that yeast to this day. Malt was added according to taste. Thus the brewers sought to balance the brew’s sweetness and bitterness. Šnekutis brewers use the same method today.
For 24 hours the Valentas family boiled its first beer batch. Afterward, they let the batch mature for almost ten days. When the beer was ready, the family gathered. The first Šnekutis beer turned out to be light, thick, and unfiltered. The family concluded that the flavor was good and that it wouldn’t be a shame to offer it to others and maybe even sell it.
Šnekutis beer was naturally fermented and “live.” The latter feature caused some problems. One day, a Šnekutis beer bottle exploded on a grocery store shelf. The brewers hadn’t taken into account that in warm temperatures yeast continues to do its job and that the beer continued to mature. The store owner asked politely no longer to have delivered this type of beer.
The brewers having learned their lesson, Šnekutis beer has since been stored only in refrigerators. The brewers added filtration equipment to help extend the expiration date of its “live” beer. The brewers still make unfiltered as well as filtered beer, though. In Lithuanian pubs, traditional unfiltered beer still rules.
Šnekutis brewers have also innovated in beer bottling. They were among the first in Lithuania to use PET bottles.
In 1995, Valentas began to produce beer in one of his farm buildings and sell it. The brewery was able to produce up to two tons of beer per batch. Soon, the first store of his, which locals very quickly began calling Patron’s store, opened up next to the Pasvalys farmers market.
In those days, almost every other household in Svalia region (another name for Pasvalys) was making its own beer. The competition was fierce and Valentas soon realized that he needed to come up with smart publicity and a sound sales strategy. Producing good beer was no longer satisfactory by itself. His drink needed to be tasty, strong and cheap. Moreover, it had to have a name. His beer had to stand out from all the brand names that his neighbors were so quick at creating.
Soon he began producing Šnekutis, with 6.0 percent alcohol content, Barzdočių beer (Bearded Men’s Beer) with a 7.0 percent alcohol content, and Uraganas Anatolijus (Hurricane Anatoly) with a 8.5 percent alcohol content.
Valentas tried to draw attention in other ways too. A true Lithuanian, he would wear simple folksy peasant clothes. He whooped as he rode his bicycle. Most importantly, he grew long mustache and beard. He enjoyed cracking jokes, was extremely friendly, and liked to invite people to his house for a glass of beer.
Valentas’s house was exceptional: surrounded by countless old things which people discarded in quantity after Lithuania regained its independence. Valentas collected artifacts of Soviet times that were no longer needed or appreciated by free Lithuanians. Included were foreign beer coasters, beer labels and corks, and also photographs, pins and badges. Most of all, Valentas, the appliance repairman, collected electrical devices. They were big and heavy, like the first bulky devices produced in the West, such as German Grundig or Japanese Sony.
It was no secret that Patron’s visitors did not always have change in their pockets; but they never refused a swig of his beer. The neighbors of Valentas brought him home appliances to repair, but they also would pawn them or simply exchange them for beer. The man kindly accepted everything that people brought to him, especially wooden barrels.
“To Patron!” cried men and women, young fellows and maidens. They would make a special trip to the store. Some of them had to walk a few kilometers; others rode their bikes or cars. Those who were just passing by could not miss the red Soviet Zaporozhets, erected on the stump of a tree, which for many beer lovers on warm summer nights became a temporary hotel. A visitor could also spot from afar the carved wooden inscription with the words “Your Patron,” clay pitchers thrust on the fence and flowers in the garden.
“We have no bad intentions,” Valentas likes to say. He named himself “Patron” and started selling home-brewed beer. People still call him by this name.
Beer As Currency
People wouldn’t call Valentas “Patron” for no reason. Since long ago, bear has signified kindness. Everyone knows the great value of beer. Every beer expert would agree that for a mouthful of tasty, fresh, and cold beer one would readily part with his last shirt.
Beer also unites people. Older people knew: if there’s beer, there’s a feast. A real festival would always have beer and plenty of it. In the Lithuanian countryside, one would pay back neighbors for their help with something good, for example, beer. In the northern part of the country, neighbors at table would be invited to help themselves to a pitcher of cold beer. They would pour the drink into a 200 ml (6.7 oz) Soviet-style table-glass, also called granyonyi stakan, and pass it along.
“One gulp of beer opens one’s mouth, two—intertwine legs,” say northern Lithuanians about home-brewed beer. Valentas adds, “It depends on a person. One man’s head stays cool, but he cannot stay on his both legs. As for others—the tongue loosens up and one cannot stop jabbering.”
Valentas likes beer for this one particular reason—that it can open up people’s mouths and souls. That’s why he likes the word “šnekutis” (loosely translated as “a chatterbox”). And that’s how the legendary beer brand name—Šnekutis—was coined. Today the name is recognized by unique rustic flavors of its beer and by Valentas’s smile, visible from under a straw hat. His two thumbs up mean that he is happy twofold.
Šnekutis Goes to Vilnius
When Valentas’s son Aurimas grew older, he started looking for new opportunities. After a decade of a very successful business in Pasvalys, in 2006 he decided to move with his family to the capital of Lithuania. By then he was known as an eccentric beer brewer. Quite naturally, the city of Vilnius offered him a place in Užupis, the neighborhood of free and creative people, also known as Montmartre of Vilnius.
The first Šnekutis beer bar in Vilnius opened on Polocko Street, on the banks of the Vilnelė, just over the hill from the Tourist Information Center. It was a little wooden house with a gate and a cosy courtyard furnished with massive wooden outdoor tables. One little door invited a visitor inside.
Darkness and a wooden interior patched with boar fur still prevail in the pub. The visitor finds himself surrounded by many old electric appliances, brewing supplies, and other trifles found these days only at a flea market. The pub is especially liked by the youth who wander the streets of Užupis. Students from the countryside also frequent Šnekutis, because only here they can indulge in real craft beer and taste rustic traditional Lithuanian dishes.
Šnekutis has been discovered by tourists too. They appreciate the pub’s tranquility and traditional authentic setting. In its first years, Valentas was the one who served beer and struck up conversation with every customer of the pub. How could it have been otherwise? He is the soul of Šnekutis.
News about Šnekutis traveled fast. Soon not only Vilnius but the entire world knew about the new beer pub in Užupis. Vilnius residents started to come here to savor the craft beer and delicious Lithuanian dishes. The city embraced its new Patron and craved more beer. Still, the truth has to be told that Valentas doesn’t offer strong Pasvalys beer to Vilniutians. Spoiled city folks wouldn’t be able to handle it. Beer in the Šnekutis Užupis pub is tailored to pampered bellies of Vilniutians.
Not even a year had passed when in 2007 a second Šnekutis pub opened in Vilnius. Is it a coincidence that the new pub came to St. Stephen Street located not too far from the train and bus stations and just a few meters away from the famous Egg sculpture? The same egg from which, people say, in 2001 the angel of Užupis had hatched?
Not only had Šnekutis pub came to St. Stephen Street. Valentas also moved to the new place. He is the real owner of the pub. He still serves beer and food, chats with customers, and doesn’t shy from being photographed. The pub has a small homey bar and three rooms with wooden benches and tables decorated with linen tablecloths. Historic photos adorn the walls. Shelves and windowsills are crowded with old TV and radio sets, a gramophone, and other devices. On a little stand for newspapers one finds chess boards.
The Šnekutis pub on St. Stephen Street is especially liked by locals and tourists. The pub was noticed by the travel experts Tripadvisor.com. Happy customers from the farthest parts of the world have kindly praised Šnekutis beer and warm pub’s setting. The map on Šnekutis wall has witnessed many pub’s customers. It’s covered with pins showing from what countries visitors traveled.
There’s a saying in Lithuanian: If there are two, soon there will be three. (It goes not only for a man and a woman, but also for beer.) Šnekutis marched deeper into Vilnius Old Town. This time it settled next to St. Nicolas Church, where there used to be the legendary cafe Kretinga, frequented by punks and artists. Because of its proximity to the church, the cafe was gently called Mykoliukas or Dear Nicolas. The third Šnekutis pub moved in there in 2014.
The place offers a lot of space. Its youthful setting draws younger people and students. It’s a great place to watch a basketball game on TV or to play foosball. Like the other Šnekutis pubs in Vilnius, the bar on St. Nicolas Street also serves its real farmhouse beer and savory Lithuanian dishes.
Beer and Politics
Beer with more pronounced bitterness has entered the Lithuanian beer market. It’s a sign that foreign beer traditions are coming to Lithuania. The Lithuanian market has been dominated by all kinds of calzbergs. These days the real, authentic and unique Lithuanian product is not always the winner.