Magic from the Baltic coast

Charlotte Cook reflects on her time living in Estonia, and the traditional ingredients and practices driving craft alcohol there


When most people think of Estonia, their minds tend to conjure up images of a post-Soviet wasteland inhabited by concrete tower blocks and spluttering Ladas. That, or they imagine an icy landscape filled with impenetrable pine forest and permafrost. Most people don’t know what language they speak in Estonia, never mind much about its culture and people, and least of all about its bourgeoning and unique craft beer scene.

Estonia is, obviously, nothing like I described above. It is a small nation of 1.3 million people, positioned on the far eastern edges of the EU and filled with charming medieval cities nestled against a backdrop of verdant birchwood forest and saturnine boglands. The language is a Finno-Ugric tongue, more closely related to Finnish and Hungarian than Russian, and to a native English speaker it is the only impenetrable aspect of this otherwise beautiful and beguiling country. 

Since gaining independence in 1991, Estonia has been busy establishing itself as the homeland of internet-based services, lacking as it is the natural resources that other newly independent countries could use to kick start their economies. Game-changing companies such as TransferWise and Skype emerged out of Tallinn, with the government focusing on digital education as a pathway to establishing Estonia as a Silicon Valley of Northern Europe. The beer market has long been dominated by the local Saku and A Le Coq lager brands. It wasn’t until 2014, and the ascent of Põhjala, that craft beer started to make inroads into Estonia. 

Estonian beer hasn’t always been lager-driven; koduõlu (literally home-beer) is the traditional farmhouse beer that has been produced in the country for generations. This is a mixture of malted and un-malted barley and rye, un-boiled and flavoured with juniper bark and local herbs. Roadside shops and bars will always have a jug to sell to passers-by, and while it won’t be to everyone’s taste, it is an undeniably charming relict of a forgotten past. 

The Estonian character is distinctively resilient and connected to the land

The Estonian character is distinctively resilient and connected to the land; this is in part due to the need to collectively retain national personality through successive occupations. Estonia has been independent for fewer than 70 of the past 800 years, and its current freedom only began with the Singing Revolution of 1987-1991, in which the Baltic states peacefully regained independence from the weakened Gorbachev administration. That Estonians have a deep and symbiotic relationship with their land therefore comes as no surprise, and that love of the motherland and all that she produces extends to beer and the unique ingredients used to flavour it. 

Having lived in Estonia for a while, this connection is very obvious. Taking a walk around any of the traditional covered markets will reveal stalls bursting with home-pickled wild mushrooms, foraged berries, and bunches of wild garlic sold by headscarf-bedecked Babushkas. In part, this is a vestige of Soviet times, where people were forced to supplement their diet with what they could find around them; and if they could make a bit of money from it too, all the better. To suggest that this behaviour is purely founded on thrift though would be a mistake; even the most cursory look at the beers currently being produced in Estonia show that brewers are using excellent local ingredients in a creative way. 

PHOTO: Nöösker Brewing Project

Kristjan Aruoja is an Estonian cuckoo brewer and mead-maker who began the Nöösker brewing project in 2015. Nöösker translates to “restless animal”, reflecting his focus on the exploration and discovery of flavours that is central to the creative philosophy of the project. According to Aruoja, “Estonians have always been considered nature and forest people, so we are really connected to the natural environment, and have not fully urbanised yet. Considering that roughly half of the Estonian territory is covered with forest, we are familiar with wilderness. So, it’s not uncommon that people spend a great deal of time in the forests and people often prefer ecological and locally sourced food and drinks.” 

Regarding the influence of Estonia on Nöösker, Aruoja says “It’s like the beers and meads are extensions of the Estonian countryside”, a statement that could not be applied to many other breweries. This open connection to the land reflects wider Estonian culture. “There is no better way for us to be inspired than to seek what nature has to offer and what our ancestors have told us (or left behind in writing),” continues Aruoja. “Then we take that rather traditional, sometimes even ancient knowledge, and brew modern beers and meads.” 

Estonian forests are a rich source of honey too, and Estonian mead is becoming more popular alongside craft beer, despite the stark differences in production techniques, with mead production taking months compared to the relatively short beer process. Aruoja encapsulates this rather poetically, saying “If I would have to bring out one thing that we have learned from making mead, it would be the appreciation of time herself as the artist”.

Roughly half of Estonia is covered with forest, we are familiar with wilderness

While it may be best known for its heavy-hitting stouts and beautifully designed labels, Põhjala brewery has also been vocal about the use of locally sourced ingredients in its beer. The brewery and taproom are located on a former Soviet submarine base on the Baltic coast of Tallinn, though the original brewery was on the edge of the forest in the city’s Nõmme district. This proximity to the woods helped to inspire the Forest Series of beers that make use of ingredients as diverse as birch bark, porcini mushrooms, rowan berries and spruce tips. Some of these ingredients are chosen for their role in Estonian folk medicine, but most are used abundantly in Estonian cuisine and impart a delicious and unique flavour into beer.

The beer that sparked the whole series of forest beers was Mets (Forest), a 7% black IPA brewed with blueberries and spruce tips. The spruce tips were harvested by hand, and the blueberries were picked, juiced and preserved especially. This is both extremely time consuming and expensive, and using ingredients from the forest is inherently seasonal, with spruce tips only being available for a few short weeks in the early spring. For Põhjala the cost was outweighed by the opportunity to showcase these unique flavours and to present a beer that, whilst heavily influenced by American west coast brewing, was undeniably Estonian. 

PHOTO: Pihtla Pruulikoda

A traditional health tonic in the region is birch sap, tapped directly from the tree or spontaneously fermented and drunk a few days later. I first saw this in action when visiting a friend’s childhood home, where we all trooped out to the woods to collect some sap directly from the trees for the next morning. The drink is slightly sweet and very refreshing with a high mineral content, though I was sorely disappointed when I drank some the day after a trip to the pub, having been told it was a sure-fire hangover cure. At Põhjala, we brewed a rye porter where we used birch sap to make up a quarter of the volume of brewing water, which came in at about 500l, all decanted by hand from 20l buckets. This shows how local ingredients can be used in ways that aren’t just adding fruit to a beer or replacing hops with herbs, but from the bottom up. 

Tallinn is the centre of the Estonian brewing industry, but there are diverse breweries dotted around the country. Pihtla Pruulikoda on the island of Saaremaa is maintaining the tradition of brewing koduõlu, one of the last surviving genuine farmhouse beers in Europe. Andrus Viil began helping his father-in-law to produce his farmhouse beer in 2014 and has expanded this into a commercial brewery specialising in 8.8% ABV koduõlu. According to Viil the beer has been an important foodstuff on the island, with the unmalted barley portion providing important nutrients, and the malted grains would be grown and processed on the farm, allowing locals to extract every drop of goodness from their produce. This feeds into the rhythm of life on the islands, where people eat seasonally, and during the frozen Estonian winter the additional nutrients and calories from koduõlu augments the diet of islanders.

Viil, who grew up on Saaremaa, has drunk the beer his whole life and has worked to promote koduõlu on the island and across Estonia, taking the beer to summer fêtes and festivals. Those who try it for the first time compare koduõlu to German wheat beer, but for older Estonians who remember it from their youths, it is a familiar and comforting drink. Viil believes that Estonian beer is changing, with the large brewing companies coming to the realisation that consumer tastes are changing, driven by craft producers. On Saaremaa people are still seeking out and producing koduõlu, with Viil recently giving a class on brewing and microbiology to local high school students, proving that this traditional culture is still alive and thriving. 

The future of Estonian craft beer now lies in the hands of consumers

I spoke to Kaspar Kaur, a graphic designer based in Tallinn, who has been a regular face on the Estonian craft beer scene. Kaur agrees that the Estonian beer market has seen rapid growth, with an emphasis on quality that has left nearby cities trailing behind. “When I started, it was rare to find anything but basic, cheap, mass-produced lagers. Since then, it has enjoyed rapid growth in both customer expectations and quality, yet lagers are still the market dominators”. Despite this Kaur feels that Estonian brewing is on the same path as the craft beer scene in other countries such as the USA and Denmark, with popular trends dominating the types of beers brewed. Aruoja is more hopeful, saying “One thing I would personally like to see happening is the emerging of the production of local malts and yeasts. Hops are a more difficult subject. If this would happen, we would most likely see even more unique Estonian style beers and other unique drinks. We do have Baltic Porter as a style originating from the region. I don’t see why there couldn’t be more styles.”

The future of Estonian craft beer now lies in the hands of consumers; the market is small and still developing, and social media allows us to see the newest releases from around the planet, even if we can’t drink them. So far, Estonian breweries have set themselves apart by drawing inspiration from the world around them, but as the craft world inflates and the standard of Estonian brewing rises, it remains to be seen whether Estonia will continue to forge its own path in the beer world, or if brewers will look to their peers overseas for inspiration. 

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