Richard Croasdale meets the brewery whose name literally means taste.
Monday 28 October 2019
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Helsinki x Tallinn
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I'm already late for my meeting with Maku Brewing, but have decided to blame Pyynikin entirely. Having missed the last train from Tampere, I ended up sleeping 100km away from my hotel, on the couch of the brewery’s international sales manager. I think I may also have broken my hand while running for the bus, which is going to make photography rather difficult. Fortunately, Maku’s newly-promoted CEO, Ville Makkonon is waiting at the train station to collect me, with a huge smile on his face. Apparently, news of my big night out in Tampere has travelled fast, so he’s full of sympathy and keen to show me around.
Maku is just north of Helsinki, in the town of Tuusula, and was founded in 2014 by the “original five”. The way Ville tells it, this core group was something of a dream team, assembled by former IT workers Jussi Tamminen and Juhani Repo, after they decided to open their own brewery while working together in Ireland.
“Jussi and Juhani met when they were both sent to Ireland with a bunch of colleagues from IBM,” he explains. “Naturally, they started drinking there, fell in love with beer, and the idea was born! When their time in Ireland was over, Jussi decided to travel the world for a year, talking to brewers, trying different styles and learning what made a successful brewery. His main conclusion was that there is a global community of people who are as passionate about beer as he is, and that passion and determination are the two most important ingredients, as long as you can surround yourself with the right people.”
When he returned to Finland, Jussi and Juhani took everything they had learned and started collecting other people from fields including marketing and sales, so they’d have all the skills they needed as soon as they launched their first beer in 2014.
Brewing-wise, Ville is proud to say Maku has never chased the more extreme fringes of the craft beer world, opting instead to focus on easy-drinking, well-balanced beers, brewed to the highest standard possible. The line-up therefore mostly consists of pale ales and pilsners, with the occasional easy-drinking saison thrown in for variety. Recipe creation remains in the hands of founder Juhani, with fellow brewer Jani sometimes pitching in.
There are a few surprises for the eagle-eyed observer though, including stout-filled bourbon barrels on a high shelf, and even a handful of casks in the storage and shipping area. I can’t resist asking Ville about the latter. “Ah, yes,” he replies. “They're not actually Real Ale but something similar. There's a few pumps in Helsinki, maybe six bars with cask pumps. It's not the craft crowd though - it's mostly older, more conservative drinkers, but we love brewing it!”
Maku’s no-nonsense approach is also reflected in the branding, which shuns “wild craft beer names that tell you nothing about what’s in the can”. Even the line art that adorns every label features a variety of simple yet familiar scenes of friends having fun – “the places where the beer always tastes best,” as Ville puts it.
It should come as no surprise that ‘Maku’ is Finnish for ‘taste’ – this brewery is nothing if not to-the-point – and it seems to have worked out well so far. After several rounds of investment, in which Maku has accumulated some 300 shareholders, it has expanded from its original industrial unit to occupy the two neighbouring halls, making space for extra fermentation vessels, a top-end canning line and, yes, even a staff sauna.
Maku has been around long enough to see considerable change in the market here, and Ville is excited about the direction in which things are heading.
“There's a growing realisation that we maybe don't need the state monopoly retailer any more,” he says. “It created this perception that beer equaled mass-produced lager, and that became the culture. Craft came along and is very quickly changing how we think about beer and, importantly, our relationship with alcohol generally.
“So there’s more space opening up for beer in the stores, more competing products on the shelves. It’s only just started to bite, but already the big breweries are feeling it and changing their behaviour by coming out with their own ales. To be honest, that’s really good news for everyone, because it helps get the message out that beer is not just lager, so drinkers become more adventurous and aware. At the start of the 20th century there was a brewery in every village and I think we're going in that direction again.”
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