In heaven there is no beer, according to a polka classic. If that is true, then I must be living in some sort of Latvian heaven here in Minnesota.
With Jāņi approaching, I thought the right thing to do would be to buy a few bottles of Latvian beer. It should be a simple enough chore, because I had bought Latvian beer in the Minneapolis area before.
But a visit to Surdyk’s, a liquor store in Minneapolis that has a fairly broad selection and where years before I had bought some Latvian brew, proved fruitless. As insurance, I purchased a six-pack of Kalnapilis, one of several Lithuanian beers stocked by the store.
Returning home, I decided to call around. Surely, in a region with 2.5 million people, someone must sell Latvian beer.
I began with Surdyk’s on the chance that I simply had not seen the Latvian section.
Surdyk’s “beer person” replied enthusiastically to my query about the availability of any beers from Latvia.
“Sure, we do! Are you looking for anything in particular?”
Aldaris, I said, figuring that if anything Latvia’s best-known export would ring a bell. It didn’t.
“Doesn’t sound familiar,” the beer person said. But he put me on hold and went to check.
“We carry Švyturys, Uosto… We carry about four,” he assured me upon his return.
Those are Lithuanian beers, I told him, not Latvian.
“Are they, really?” he said. “Well, I guess then we don’t carry any (Latvian beer).”
Asked for suggestions about where a Latvian beer could be found, he recommended a big liquor store in the southern suburb of Burnsville. That led me to the Burnsville branch of the MGM Liquor Warehouse chain.
The manager there double-checked the store’s international section and confirmed that no Latvian beers were available. He suggested Blue Max Liquors, a smaller store in Burnsville that specializes in microbrews and import beers.
But I was shot down by Blue Max, too.
“If we don’t have it, nobody in the Twin Cities will have it,” said the confident woman who answered my call.
The situation looked hopeless. I called a couple of liquor stores in areas of the Twin Cities where Russian immigrants are concentrated, figuring that maybe they might have a wider selection of East European beers.
Finally, one salesperson suggested calling an ethnic food store. Because no Latvian food stores can be found in Minnesota, I called Kiev Foods, an East European store in St. Paul where I have bought Laima chocolates, Lāse milk, šprotes and bread from Latvia.
The woman who answered the phone couldn’t think of any place that might carry Latvian beer, but said she would ask someone else. She rattled off something in Russian to a co-worker, and the only two words I understood were magazin (store) and litovskii (Lithuanian).
“It’s Lithuanian you want?” she asked me, just to be sure.
No, I said with urgency, Latvian, latysh—probably butchering what little I know of the Russian language.
“Continental Liquors,” came the reply. The store is located on the outskirts of St. Paul.
The man with the Eastern European accent at Continental Liquors told me that in the past the store had carried Aldaris, but no more. No distributor in Minnesota carries Latvian beer, therefore no liquor store sells it. The same is true for the delicious Rīgas šampānietis (a sparkling wine made by Latvijas Balzams), which Continental also used to carry. In fact, I was told, the late hockey player Sergejs Žoltoks, who used to play for the Minnesota Wild, sometimes bought his šampānietis there.
So here I sit, a day before Jāņi, staring at a six-pack of Kalnapilis. In Minnesota there is no Latvian beer, that’s why I’m drinking Lithuanian.
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