What happens when you put two barrel-obsessed Finns in a former Soviet lemonade factory with €1 million? Richard Croasdale finds out.
WORDS: Richard Croasdale Photography: soribrewing.com
Friday 14 July 2017
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Even though it’s only a short bus ride from Tallinn centre, a visit to Sori Brewing still feels like an adventure, as one must journey into the heart of the formerly-restricted Dvigatel factory complex. Dvigatel is one of many physical reminders of Tallinn’s Soviet past; a Russian state heavy industrial centre, responsible for assembling parts for cruise missiles, nuclear reactors and submarine hulls.
While the Russians may have left some 20 years ago, Sori’s building – initially used for galvanising steel, before being converted into a lemonade bottling plant in more peaceful times – still retains a distinctly Soviet aesthetic.
Founders Pyry Hurula and Heikki Uotila are putting the finishing touches to their plush on-site tasting room when I arrive; a new addition to the brewery, to accommodate the growing number of locals and beer tourists keen to experience Sori’s beers at their source.
The brewery and its new tasting room are located on the second floor, nestled between vast chambers still filled with dust-covered industrial behemoths. In the middle of one, something that looks like a weaponised combine harvester crouches amid piles of discarded hand tools, its sole purpose – incongruously enough – was once to wash lemonade bottles.
I ask Pyry if this whole project – building a brewery on the second floor of a semi-derelict steelworks in the middle of an industrial suburb – was wilfully obtuse. “That’s pretty much what we thought too,” he laughs. “We were looking at a number of sites around the city, and got really excited when we saw this place on a map. Then we got here and thought the property manager had made a mistake when he said the space was on the second floor. Who builds a brewery on the second floor?
“But then we looked around the building and really fell in love with the atmosphere. Plus it’s built to an incredibly high specification – literally to withstand a bomb blast – with a ridiculous electrical and water supply.”
Heikki chips in: “In many ways it’s the perfect building for a brewery. When we first opened and had to apply for our health certificate, the inspection agency sent round its head guy, because we’re a brewery. He took one look around the place and said ‘you’re fine, nothing would live in here’.”
Although Sori was among the first craft brewery projects to start in Estonia, Pyry and Heikki are not actually Estonian, and the brewery’s story dates back to their days home brewing together in Tampere, Finland.
“The name is kind of a joke,” explains Heikki. “Sori is the name of the block in Tampere, where we started brewing. But it’s also because Finns have a reputation for apologising all the time, and we intended to rock the boat, so needed to get our apologies in early.”
Having looked at the financial case for setting up in their native Finland, with its high overheads and burdensome state controls, the pair quickly decided this wasn’t viable and instead sought their fortunes in neighbouring Estonia (complaining loudly to the Finnish press and generating significant publicity in the process). They proceeded to raise €1m through crowd funding and finally opened their doors in Tallinn in 2015.
The brewery’s crowd of investors (each of whom are named on the Brewhouse wall) are extremely engaged and have helped shape it in a number of ways, as Pyry recalls. “To begin with they were just names in our bank account. The money was great, but we didn’t really know who they were. Then we held a special event, where investors were invited to come along and roast us on any topic they wanted. We assumed they’d be massive beer geeks, so prepared all sorts of facts and presentations about the beer we wanted to brew.
“It didn’t go that way at all! They began asking very specific questions about the kind of financial structures we were using and digging into our business plan. It was great fun for them, not so much for us. But we started looking into it after and realised this guy runs a major Finnish pension fund, and this guy is the CEO of the biggest grocery chain in the Baltics, and that guy had his own ice hockey team. We’ve met I’d say about 80% of our investors now, and they’ve been so generous with their help and advice; particularly in the early days, when we were working through all this bureaucracy without speaking the language, that was invaluable.”
Seeing Estonia now, it’s easy to forget that when Sori was making its investor pitch, the country had no market for craft beer. In fact, the brewery’s original projections included no domestic sales at all, and expected to be entirely reliant on exports. But Estonia’s home-grown scene has gone off like a rocket since then, with a clutch of excellent breweries rising to international prominence and a second wave of equally promising new outfits hot on their heels.
“Estonia only has a population of 1.3 million, but in a way I think that’s been good for the beer scene here, because everyone knows you can’t get away with putting out a bad beer,” observes Heikki. “Whether you’re selling to people at home or going to an international market, you’re going to face stiff competition, so everything has to be perfect every time.”
Sori has enjoyed real commercial success in Estonia and back home in Finland with its Investors IPA and Out of Office Session IPA, but is probably best known for its work with barrel ageing. Even in a part of the world where big, barrel-aged beers are a staple of the craft scene, the guys at Sori have earned an enviable reputation for the scale and quality of their barrel ageing programme.
“This is really where we have our fun,” says Pyry. “We have one of the biggest barrel rooms of any brewery in Northern Europe. We made our first barrel order, intending to get maybe 20-30 barrels, but ended up getting 150. I think the most we’ve had in here at one time is just over 200.”
Walking among full barrels has always been a particular pleasure for me, and Sori’s collection is no exception, with hand-chalked signs on the heads promising new delights at every turn, from a wee heavy aged in a Glenmorangie barrel to Cognac-aged barley wine.
Heikki confirms working with barrels has been a learning curve, as the pair have built up their skills (including cooperage, as there are no trained coopers nearby).
“Wood’s a natural product, so there’s no rulebook for getting the best out of it, and no substitute for experience. So you need a sense of when a beer is at its best. Is it perfect now, or what will it be like in a month’s time? The barrel-aged beers constantly surprise us, the fact that you’re able to create these diverse tastes from something natural. It’s like gardening – it requires care, thought and constant attention or your plants die.”
It’s been a great afternoon with Pyry and Heikki, and with the sun low in the sky I say my goodbyes and set out to find a bus. Pyry intervenes though and begins ordering me a car on his phone: “I’ll get you something cool”. I thank him and ask what I should look out for. “You’ll know it when you see it,” comes the enigmatic reply.
A few minutes later, a hot red Tesla sportscar screeches onto the weed-raddled concrete of the car park, an aviator-wearing older gentlemen relaxing behind the wheel. I do a poor job of hiding my giddiness, and confess that this is my first time in a Tesla. “Don’t worry,” my driver reassures me, gunning the low-slung beast up to 80 on the quiet, dead straight road out of Dvigatel. “It’s my first time too.”
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