Richard Croasdale heads north to Tampere, to witness a local brewing revival
Monday 28 October 2019
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Helsinki x Tallinn
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Once upon a time, the town of Tampere was a hub of brewing. The immaculate water – universally agreed to be among the purest in the world – resulted in traditional beers of such quality that the town was famed across the region. But then prohibition struck, and the few licensed breweries that remained were picked off one by one, by the international brewing giants bent on creating a pan-European lager hegemony (we know that side of the story from cities around the world though, so won’t go re-hash it here).
Then, in 2013, Tuomas Pere – a man with beer in his blood, figuratively and literally – decided he was fed up of social work, and that the time was right to put Tampere and Finland back on the beery map.
“Beer has always been part of me,” he explains. “I come from a Sahti family, which is a very traditional beer in Finland, older than any other style in the world, and the recipes have always been passed down through families, usually from mother to daughter. It’s strong and very beautiful, using yeast like German weizen yeast, but with no carbonation.
“My recipe is 400 years old, and from my father’s side it’s at least 100 years old. My brother taught me when I was 15. In around 2012, I wasn’t happy in my job, and my wife found that the brewing school was looking for new students. I got in and learned how to brew professionally, initially perfecting our Sahti to give it a shelf life of around 3-4 months.”
When he opened Pynnikin in 2013, its annual production was around 35,000 litres. It was one of only 20 breweries in the whole country, around half of which had effectively fallen silent. Demand quickly outstripped Tuomas’s ability to supply from his small basement premises, so he launched a crowdfunding campaign to find something more suitable. “In one day I got €35k. I mean, what the fuck,” he laughs.
The current brewery is much more appropriate, and has enabled Pyynikin to become Finland’s fastest growing brewery in three consecutive years. This year’s production hit 2.25 million litres, with demand still increasing both domestically and internationally.
When I arrive to see the brewery for myself, there’s a host of local bloggers and press already waiting, cameras and dictaphones poised to record the moment. It’s not the reception I’m used to, as a beer writer of dubious repute, and I’m certainly not ready to give an impromptu presentation on the reasons for my visit, nor the staged grinning handshake photos with Tuomas. The reaction from my media peers is unreadable – perhaps I should have learned some Finnish for the sake of appearances? – but they seem satisfied when I trail haltingly into awkward silence, so I can only assume the job is done.
Thank God for beer, which is cold and plentiful in the post-presentation huddle, and I sink a half-litre of Pyynikin’s Mosaic lager in about 30 seconds. This stuff is absolutely great; long-time readers will know I’m not usually a fan of Mosaic – which to me usually tastes of pickled onion Monster Munch – but this thirst-quenching brew is so crisp, with spritzy notes of lemon zest and a palpable grapefruit tingle on the sides of my tongue. This is the first of four cans I’ll consume over the next several hours. I have no regrets.
Tuomas admits that his timing has played a large part in the brewery’s success. After a brief and unsuccessful flurry of ‘new-wave’ Finnish breweries in the early 90s, drinkers here had been saddled with pretty poor domestic lagers, even as interest in authentic, high quality produce had steadily increased.
“My job at that time, after brewing, was to go out and meet the shop owners and markets and sit with them with samples. The first six or seven months, it really felt like we were pushing at an open door. The hours were long, but it felt like people had been waiting for this, for someone to reclaim Tampere’s brewing heritage.”
As something of a pioneer, Pynnikin inevitably came up against Finland’s licensing laws, which are almost as restrictive as those of the Scandinavian countries. Going against the natural Finnish tendency to be “a little shy and quiet” Tuomas set out to challenge what he saw as one of the biggest barriers to a successful national craft scene.
“We were brave, because Finnish alcohol laws are quite set; we were like pirates fighting against the system! The media are always asking for our opinions, because they know we’ll make a noise! Other breweries have been a bit more careful.
“We’ve made some progress too. Before, the maximum ABV you could sell in the supermarkets was 4.7% and now it’s 5%. We were a big part of that; when the law was being debated, I was getting text message updates from a couple of politicians sitting in Parliament. Also breweries couldn’t sell beer straight from the brewery before, which has also changed, allowing us to have shops and taprooms on-site.”
While “people will still buy an IPA if you brew it” Tuomas says consumers' tastes are becoming more sophisticated in terms of trying different styles. He also says the ABV arms race – arguably an inevitable consequence of the relaxation of prohibition – is showing signs of calming down, just as it has in the UK.
“Ironically, considering how hard we all fought to have the limits raised, low ABV beers are really trending at the moment. It’s a good thing; people want to have three or four good beers and not go home drunk! We’re also seeing a lot more women drinking beer and embracing these lower strength beers with more interesting flavours. That trend has benefited us, because we were early going into low-abv.”
Having covered the brewery history, it’s time for a tour, and I’m impressed by the scale of the operation. Around 30 people work just in this warren of pipes and tanks now, and I’m introduced to all of them.
But there’s one more surprise waiting for me upstairs in the staff area: a fully-equipped sauna with – yes – its own beer fridge. The three-tiered, wood-panelled room has a tall cylindrical stone heater in the centre, and the air is heavy with sweet pine resin. Taking my cues from my hosts, I strip off, jump into the shower and then take my place on a scalding hot bench.
“The sauna is very important in Finnish culture,” explains Tuomas. “It’s a great leveller, and many deals are done here; you’re all naked, with nothing hidden. That sort of thing encourages trust!”
With that, he empties his can of Mosaic lager onto the coals, releasing the most amazing baked malt aromas and sending a plume of super-heated lager into the space around my head. I feel the pride of my nation is at stake here, so sip my drink nonchalantly, ignoring the rivulets of sweat pouring off my back, my swimming vision and the pounding of blood in my ears. In the end though, I snap and stand unsteadily.
“Don’t shower,” advises Tuomas… What? “You’ll lose the benefit if you shower now. Grab a beer and go sit on the fire escape instead.” I do as instructed, and am soon installed on a metal gantry overlooking the carpark, necking a session IPA dressed only in a skimpy towel. Not for the first time in my Ferment career, I ponder the life choices that have brought me here. Again though, I have no regrets.
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