Meet the brewer: Chris Pilkington, Põhjala

Richard Croasdale meets the Brewdog alumnus whose virtuosity has helped put Põhjala – and Estonian brewing – on the map


Craft beer in Estonia has gone from a standing start in 2011, to become one of the most consistently exciting and high quality markets anywhere in the world. Almost every beer I’ve tasted while in the country has been nothing short of brilliant. But every revolution has to start somewhere, and Põhjala’s Enn Parel, Peeter Keek and Gren Noormets inarguably played a key role in bringing craft beer out of the shadows.

Põhjala only came to our attention last year, when we included its Must Kuld porter in the Beer52 box and subsequently awarded it our ‘staff pick of 2016’. But the more of its beers we tried, the more impressed we became, so we resolved to find out more about this exceptional brewery and the country it calls home.

This is why I find myself trundling through a leafy suburban avenue in southern Tallinn, wondering whether I’ve got the right address. Having spent the previous afternoon hanging out with (or at least sitting in the midst of) the craft beer-loving hipster cognoscenti in Tallin’s ultra-cool Telliskivi district, this tree-lined, semi-detached burgh is not where I’d expect to find such a celebrated and cutting-edge brewery.

Head brewer Chris Pilkington is calling the shots as I arrive, splitting his attention between a collaboration brew with De Struise (a “pure evil” 19% abv barrel-aged imperial stout) and a fresh batch of its passionfruit and blood orange IPA. As soon as everyone has been given their marching orders, he presses a cold glass of the latter into my hand. The day has been hot and tiring, and the fresh, floral, zesty brew really hits the spot.

Chris originally hails from Aberdeen and cut his teeth at Brewdog’s former Fraserburgh home, which is where he met the Põhjala founders back in 2012.

“We were big fans of Brewdog, which was really the only decent European craft beer you could get in Estonia at the time,” recalls co-founder Enn. “So we wrote to James Watt, asking for a tour of the brewery. He replied straight away, and Peeter and Gren ended up doing an internship there. I remember they emailed me about this dude who was making insanely good beer, and suggesting we offer him a job.”

So Chris moved to Estonia to become a partner and head brewer of the newly-formed Põhjala, which was still at the time contract brewing on other brewers’ kit. But it wasn’t long before work started on a brewery of its own, in the Nõmme neighbourhood south of Tallinn, which opened for business in April 2014.

It still uses its original brewkit – an American brewpub system from Premier Stainless, designed for a small footprint – though it’s now being run beyond its intended specification, as Chris explains.

“It’s intended for two or three brews a week, but we’re doing that every day,” he says. “We’ve made one or two modifications to support that, but it’s basically the same piece of kit; we like it because it’s built for versatility, which is very important for us. Still though, we’re going to produce in the region of half a million litres of beer this year, all done in batches of around 1,200 litres. That’s not much fun!”

The rest of the brewhouse and the adjacent room is filled with fermentation vessels of all shapes and sizes, which are constantly being added to. The original five were supplemented with an additional four before the brewery even opened. “We figured we were either going to over-estimate demand and end up with a lot of beer, or under-estimate and miss out on growth, so we decided to bet on success,” explains Chris.

The gamble was a good one, as those original nine FVs have been steadily added to. The most recent five vessels were supplied by a local fabricator, which has traditionally supplied Estonia’s huge dairy industry, but is now expanding to meet demand from the nation’s growing clutch of craft brewers.

With so much going on, Chris no longer leads every brew, relying instead on Põhjala’s small but international team of experienced brewers. He makes a point of leading from the front though, taking the reins for any first brews, or anything particularly challenging. “I wouldn’t ask the guys to do anything I’m not prepared to do myself,” he says.

The team of 12 staff is absolutely pivotal to Põhjala’s success, as both Chris and Enn frequently remind me. In addition to their brewing expertise, the brewers are full of surprises when it comes to complementary skills, in everything from construction to science and engineering.

The team of 12 staff is absolutely pivotal to Põhjala’s success

“We once had a serious problem with the labeller; the tape that prints the bottling date had stopped moving on and production was brought to a halt,” says Enn. “The replacement part would have taken days to arrive, so the next day Rait [Kulli, production manager] brought in this... thing that he’d made from an old Soviet washing machine part. It kept the bottling line running until the proper replacement arrived. We’ve still got it; one day that will be in the Põhjala museum!”

Walking past the final row of fermentation vessels, we find ourselves on the bottling line, which is (as luck would have it) labelling the final few cases of Must Kuld Colombian, destined for the Beer52 box. But something else has caught my eye through the door at the far end of the room: barrels.

Barrel-ageing is definitely a feature of Estonian beer and of the entire Baltic region, and I get the strong sense that Chris has been saving this for the end of our informal tour, such is his enthusiasm.

“At the moment it’s relatively empty as we’re between batches, normally this room’s much more full,” he apologises. “But you can see we’ve got a real range of different barrels in here. There’s bourbon barrels, obviously, but some of them have also been through the Scotch whisky system, so we’ve got barrels over here from Highland Park, over here from Laphroaig. Then we have cognac barrels, gin barrels from Finland, sherry casks...

“The point is we don’t treat wood as a commodity, because we’ve learned the best barrels give noticeably better results. That’s why this year our barrel-aged barleywine is only being matured in bourbon barrels from Woodford Reserve. It’s why our Taanilinn collaboration with To-Øl [which has long been rated Estonia’s best beer] is only matured in super-fresh Cognac barrels, sourced directly from the Cognac house. Provenance isn’t just a selling point, it actually means better beer.”

Of course, wood carries its own challenges too, and Chris and Enn recall the pain of pouring entire barrels which tasted fine, but tested positive for bacterial infection during the brewery’s stringent quality control procedures. The brewery’s lab is small but capable, enabling yeast cell counts on every brew, titration to measure not just pH but sourness in all the beers, and a shaker table for forced fermentation. Every brew is also subjected to micro-testing for lacto, pedio, acteo and various wild yeasts that could spoil fermentation.

Põhjala is now at the stage of blending its PÕHJALA barrel-aged beers, taking its creations up a significant notch in complexity. For example, its Porridge Bullet – a multi-grain breakfast ale made with four cereals – started out as a “simple” barleywine aged in bourbon oak.

It worked well, but Chris was curious about what would happen if he started blending the individual barrels together. Eventually, he ended up blending two cognac barrels and three bourbon, because every single one added a new layer of complexity.

We like to keep things moving, to keep challenging ourselves

The brewery tour complete, I sit with Chris and Enn in the brewhouse office to enjoy a glass of Rukkivein barrel-aged rye wine and discuss the art of recipe creation. “Chris has been with us from the beginning, and is the guy behind all the beer,” says Enn, right off the bat.

“Usually it’s me, Chris and Peeter who come up with the concepts, then Chris does all the recipe and development work on them. The crew then brews it, tests it, packages it and that’s it. We really couldn’t do it without him.”

“Also, I can’t leave because they’ve taken my passport,” jokes Chris. The Rukkivein in my hand – like an unusually rich, woody, spicy barleywine – is a good example of Põhjala’s ability to unearth new characters in familiar styles without ever being self-consciously weird. Every beer is interesting, but never strays into “different, but I’m not sure I like it” territory.

I’m keen to hear more about Chris’ creative process. “For me, the brewing process is like an expression,” he says. “I was never much good at any creative things. I’ve never stuck it out long enough to learn to play instruments. I was terrible at painting, tried my hand at photography, which I thought I was good at back in university. I consider myself good at cooking, but not amazing... Brewing is the only area where I can make things come out exactly as I’d intended; it’s an expression of creativity that I’ve finally found.”

And how does this creative impulse square with efficiently running a brewing operation stretched to its maximum capacity? “I can be a pretty impulsive person sometimes,” he admits. “When I was brewing the blood orange passionfruit, for example, I got a bit over-excited and started thinking ‘this is going to be better than our core range IPA, so let’s just drop that and start doing this’. We didn’t do that, obviously, but we like to keep things moving, to keep challenging ourselves. That’s why we’ll sometimes drop a seasonal beer even if it’s popular – we never stop trying to do better.”

Capacity won’t be a problem for much longer though, as Pohjala lays plans for a €4 million new brewery, in a historical factory building in the Kalamaja disctrict, which it hopes to move into in the second half of 2018. This new facility will have much more automation, allowing three times the output with only a small expansion of the team. In the interim, Põhjala is trialling contract brewing its core IPA with a Spanish brewery, to free up space in its schedule for more specialist brews.

There’s a growing air of excitement in the brewery now, as stock for Põhjala’s Tallinn Craft Beer Weekend is loaded into trucks and the final preparations are made. “I don’t feel like I’m doing enough,” says Enn quietly. “It’s the calm before the storm, I suppose.” Having tasted a small sample of what the guys will be pouring this evening, I for one can’t wait for the doors to open.

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