Ratings Key (0-10)
A: Choice and/or quality of drinks
B: Style and décor
C: Atmosphere and feel
D: Amenities, Events & Community
E: Value for money
F: The Pub Going Factor
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Latvia’s pub scene is hugely atomised and segregated along ethnic and class divides as a consequence of a people trying to carve out a fully expressed nationality after centuries of oppression. In certain cities with a higher population of Russians you may find the pub scene markedly different to that with a huge native population of Latvians, not only in terms of the culture (vodka versus beer) but the prices and the general attitude.
On the Latvian side, they have resurrected their brewing scene with a focus on national expression, many beers featuring plants, herbs and spices found native in Latvia. The craft beer scene seems intent on upholding selective elements of a folk tradition and in doing so differentiate themselves from the dirt-cheap hard drinking Russian bars. The quality is generally very good, though some of the fruity, stranger additions will have your mouth doing cartwheels trying to work out what’s going on. In terms of classic beers, you’ll find some terrific dunkelweizen and dark ales, while the standard fare is strong Dortmunder style lager which doesn’t entirely stand up to session drinking. In general, the beer is on the up and up.
Further complicating matters is Riga’s position as stag-party central, leading to an economic basket-case situation in the city centre where a beer can be twice, three times as expensive as bars you can walk to twenty minutes east in the ‘Moscow Quarter’. There are some decent bars in the old town that remain worth a visit, but a trip to Riga is the starkest example I’ve experienced of ‘cheap holidays in other people’s misery’. The best bet is to visit the various alternative bars and venues in the Centrs district which is where the locals hang out, as most of these places seemed to get the balance right.
Outside of the cities the whole notion of a pub seems to dissolve, much like the notion of a post office in villages in the UK, you get multipurpose venues trying to make money doing whatever they can. If they aren’t open then you may find yourself in desperation visiting hotel bars until Latvia expands economically.
Have fun out there, but if anyone offers you some fermented cabbage juice as a tonic, in the words of Bernard Manning, chuck it back in their face and tell them to fuck off.