Written by Richard Croasdale
Written by Richard Croasdale
Now in its third year, the Tallinn Craft Beer weekend can already claim to be the largest international beer festival in the Baltic region, pulling in many of the hottest craft breweries from Europe and beyond. The two-day event is hosted by Põjhala – whose founder, Enn, is on hand at the door to personally welcome attendees – but the brewery’s presence is otherwise characteristically low-key.
The Tallinn Creative Hub (Kultuurikatel) is undoubtedly one of the coolest beer festival venues I’ve ever experienced. A former power station, many of the original Soviet-era furnaces, turbines and other machinery remain in place, towering with arterial sprays of rusty pipework over the polished concrete floors of the modern events space. It is arranged into several levels, around whose edges the breweries serve their beers from tiny barrel-
Breweries large and small are given equal space and there’s no accommodation for eye-grabbing stand decoration; the beer speaks for itself, and even the big names need to bring their best game to get the crowd’s attention.
The spirit of the crowd is one of purposeful exploration. This isn’t one of those beer festivals where you meander from stall to stall, seeing what takes your fancy. Everyone abuzz with recommendations and passion, given extra fuel by the giant screen at one end of the main hall, displaying live Untapped ratings for every beer being poured.
There are whole tables occupied by the online rating fans – all of whom seem to know each other – surrounded by maps, notes, carefully annotated lists and mobile phones running red-hot. As kegs are replaced throughout the day, the top spots are constantly changing, and the crowd cheers (in a good-natured way) the fall of any beer that stays too long in pole position.
For the benefit of any UK festival organisers who might be reading, the live ratings jumbo-tron is a brilliant idea that should be flagrantly copied.
The brewers represent a broad spectrum of nationalities, with current US favourites such as Stillwater Artisanal and Boneyard rubbing shoulders with the obvious Scandinavian contingent, a clutch of absolutely stellar Russian outfits and an entire wall of ‘showcase’ Estonian micro-brewers.
Olaff, like many of the festival’s attendees, is over from Helsinki for the weekend. He’s impressed by the festival and particularly the Estonian presence, and shares a list of beers I should try from the Estonian Showcase.
“This is a real beer geek’s festival,” he observes. “You go to some and people are drinking half litre glasses and falling over themselves by the time you get to 8pm. There’s a real respect for the beer here – people are tasting, talking, taking notes, enjoying the craft.
“Estonia had a bit of a reputation for being the place you come to get around the high prices and state alcohol monopolies in Scandinavia. That may have helped start things here, but Estonia has an amazing beer culture in its own right now. You can walk along these new Estonian breweries and not find a single bad beer.”
Drinks are covered in the cost of entry, which means the measures are small and you’re encouraged to try many different beers. In this respect, tactical drinking definitely pays dividends. It might just be a reflection of broader beer trends or something about the Baltic palate, but there seems to be a much higher proportion of shriekingly strong stouts, porters and barley wines than at a UK festival, drinking too many of which is guaranteed to leave your head reeling and tongue unfit for any more subtle styles.
Out of the pale beers on offer, Mikeller’s 12” Winale Biere de Champagne stands out a mile for me (though our Danish pals lose points for running out of beer entirely a couple of hours into the festival’s final day).
Boneyard’s Hop-a-Wheelie IPA hits the spot as the first cold beer on a hot Saturday afternoon, while AF Brew’s Passion is My Confession – a fresh and fruity passionfruit sour – demonstrates this Russian brewery is capable of much more than head-smashing barrel-
On the dark beers, our host Põhjala’s Mel Gibson is a definite highlight, as is Lervig’s Sippin’ Into Darkness (a very welcome return for the brewery’s infamous collab with Hoppin’ Frog) and (again) AF Brew’s Lobotomy, with the latter more than living up to its ominous name.
As I’m sampling the latter, I get chatting to beer-lover Dmitry Borokhov, who’s down from St Petersburg for the weekend, and keen to share his passion for Russia’s burgeoning craft beer scene.
“There are a couple of craft breweries that are known outside Russia, but there are plenty of better ones that you’ll never have heard of, particularly if you’re outside the Baltic area,” he says. “It’s a real shame. These guys, AF Brew, deserve to be huge; you’d love them in the UK, but it’s like your craft beer scene and ours haven’t really joined up yet. I hope that can change!”
At the end of the final evening, Enn slaps a plain white bracelet on my wrist alongside the ubiquitous fluorescent yellow and tells me I’m coming to the official after party. The doors are closed, the music goes on and the brewers haul everything they have left into the main turbine hall. The sense of camaraderie between the happy and exhausted brewers from all over the world is truly heartwarming.
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