Richard Croasdale touches down in Helsinki, to discover a vibrant and growing craft beer scene, with a thirst for variety
Monday 28 October 2019
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Helsinki x Tallinn
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We’ve been fans of Baltic beer ever since 2017, when Beer52 was the first to bring many great Estonian beers into the UK, and Ferment lifted the lid on the country’s buzzing craft scene. So when the opportunity came up not only to return to the area, but include Helsinki in the experience, it was a no-brainer.
Like many of its Nordic peers, Finland has a patchy history with alcohol. Cold and dark, with not much distraction for a lot of the year, there was (and is) a strong reliance on prohibition to protect public health, with high taxes and licensing restrictions that ensure the state has a monopoly on all but the lowest-ABV drinks.
While supermarkets can sell anything up to 5% – it was 3.5% until a couple of years ago – anything stronger has to go through the esoterically-named Alko stores which seem to be everywhere. There are pros and cons to such systems (most booze-watchers hold a grudging respect for Sweden’s Systembolaget state monopoly) but it has generally served to drive up prices and raise the bar to entry for would-be craft breweries.
This was certainly evident at the Tallinn Craft Beer Weekend a couple of years ago, where the Finnish contingent, traveling a short hop across the water from Helsinki, was as enthusiastic as it was numerous. With its much more liberal licensing laws, Estonia has become a haven for Finns looking to indulge their passion. The same is true of brewers, and the two Finns behind Sori went to the extreme length of establishing their brewery in Tallinn (reportedly to the chagrin of some of their Finnish peers, though that might just be gossip).
There are other quirks too. Despite the impression they gave in Tallinn, the quiet, reserved Finns don’t tend to be big social drinkers; at least not in the sense that we in the UK would understand. Rather than steady social drinking as a regular part of their weekly routine, Finns will typically abstain unless there’s a special occasion or a public holiday, at which point they just go wild.
In any case, the relative difficulty of being a craft beer devotee in Finland hasn’t prevented an interesting, high-quality crop of bars, pubs and breweries gaining a foothold and growing quickly in a relatively short space of time. Only six short years ago, the number of Finnish breweries languished in the 20s. That number is now around 300, and many local brands and traditions have been revived. And, as great as Helsinki is, it’s not the whole picture; most reasonably-sized towns now have their own brewery and craft beer is widely available across the country.
To their credit, the two big supermarket chains, named ‘S’ and ‘K’ – the Fins are not big on overly flowery names, clearly – have really been a driving force in this revolution, with local managers often given a free hand to negotiate and buy beer from local producers. Again, this plays into the sense that Finnish drinkers are developing a real sense of pride in their neighbouring breweries.
It’s not all roses though, and several breweries I spoke to had complaints that will sound familiar to anyone involved in British craft a few years ago, namely that consumers tend to become obsessed with a couple of hot new brands, before ditching them and moving on six months later. Exciting and increasingly adventurous it may be, but mature it is not.
The flip side to this of course is that there’s plenty of room to make your mark. Next to more saturated markets, craft’s share in Finland is still miniscule and, although all the breweries have international ambitions, they’re not yet relying on export as their main source of growth. Indeed, Pyynikin once had to scale back its international sales to avoid letting down domestic customers’ desire to increase their order volumes. The main enemy remains macro-brewed lager, not your big craft peers.
It feels like an exciting phase, and there’s no doubt that Finland already has the quality to become, in time, a truly great craft beer nation.
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