Its bespectacled mascot is Estonian craft beer’s most recognisable brand. Richard Croasdale drops in on Ollenaut to share a brew.
Friday 14 July 2017
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When Ollenaut opened in 2013, founders Urmas Roots and Ilmar Räni parked their figurative tanks on the front lawn of Estonia’s largest domestic macro-brewer Saku, just 7km away.
Despite this, as one of only a handful of craft breweries just starting out, the pair had fairly modest ambitions: to build something different from the corporate life they were escaping, and to make high quality, highly drinkable beer.
Ilmar recalls: “Simcoe pale ale was our first beer, then we moved onto rye, amber, smoked porter and an American IPA with cascade and centennial. The demand was crazy right from the start; even big supermarket chains were calling to ask when they could get more of our beers. We were anticipating around 30,000 litres that first year, but that ended up around 90,000.”
Today, Ollenaut is among the best selling, most highly regarded breweries on the country’s thriving craft brewing scene. Its distinctively labeled bottles – all featuring witty variations on the same award-winning design – can be found everywhere from the coolest bars and restaurants to supermarket shelves.
The brewery itself has – despite its location in a modern business park – a charmingly old-fashioned feel. An English-style pine-clad mash tun and kettle nestle squat among the six oddly-sized fermentation vessels, and there are far fewer lines and valves in sight that many other similarly-sized breweries.
“It’s the most basic brewery, but it works,” acknowledges Ilmar. “I know a lot of brewers put in all sorts of extra kit to give themselves more flexibility, but half of it ends up never being used; theirs is still a very manual process. Having said that though, next time we build a brewery, I’m definitely going to put in more automation to get rid of some bottlenecks.”
This appreciation for a simple thing done well is reflected in Ollenaut’s beers, which are characterised by their drinkability and relatively low abv (compared to the thick, boozy monsters with which Baltic brewers are usually associated).
“I like drinkable beer – if you can’t drink two bottles in a row, that’s too heavy for us,” he continues. “I like to say about these really thick, sticky beers, you take one sip and say ‘oh damn that’s really good!’ By the time you get to the third sip, you’re wondering what you’re going to do with the rest of it. We have some strong beers as well, but I stick mostly to the beers I like myself. It’s actually a lot harder to brew low-alcohol, subtle beer, because every mistake will show through.”
You can make great beers to your own taste, but they need to have a market
Admitting my limited experience of Estonia’s beer culture, I ask if this has proven to be a problem in a market seemingly dominated by ‘big’ beers. “You can make great beers to your own taste, but they need to have a market,” he agrees. “If nobody’s buying them, then they weren’t great after all; it’s that simple. Fortunately, we’ve sold a lot of beer, so there’s definitely demand for our style of brewing too.
“Sure though, it can be frustrating, because there’s a core of beer fans who want the most intense flavor, every time, and every new beer they try must exceed their expectations on that front. So you get a lot of brewers chasing Ratebeer ratings. If you make a good low-alcohol beer it’s usually rated really low. If you make an average strong beer – nothing special, but really strong – it’ll do really well on the ratings. It’s ridiculous really.”
Beer geek frustrations aside though, Ollenaut’s approach is clearly working as the brewery continues to expand.
The latest addition is a large, fully-automated bottling line. Although the speed at which the team could hand-fill and label bottles had become a point of pride (and provided an opportunity for impromptu board meetings), Ilmar estimates the automated line is around six times as efficient, and has allowed increased production across the whole process.
While it seems Ollenaut’s trajectory is set, Urmas doesn’t take anything for granted in Estonia’s young and evolving craft beer market. “It’s a constantly changing market and you never know what’s going to happen next; a real rollercoaster ride. Here, the big breweries reacted very fast to the emergence of craft, much faster than in the US and UK. They have their craft lookalike brands, which are mostly brewed out of Latvia, and most consumer don’t realise they’re brewed by the big guys.
“There haven’t been an acquisitions yet, but only I think because they’re waiting to see how things will play out. As some of us pass the 500,000 litres a year mark and start heading for one or two million, that’s when I think they’ll start taking more of an interest.”
Having worked in a corporate environment, with all the bureaucracy and risk aversion that entails, Ilmar and Urmas have no desire to go back there, preferring the hard work of building something worthwhile.
“Some people think craft beer is something you can get rich on, just like that,” continues Urmas, snapping his fingers. “It’s a lot of hard work every day. And there might be a pay-off, but only if you grow big. If you stay small it’s just a lifestyle business, even if you own it – it’s something you shouldn’t expect to get rich on. Of course we want to get bigger, and that will mean some things will change over time, but we’ll never lose sight of why we started doing this in the first place, and why it still makes us so happy.”
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