A. Le Coq Brewery Tour and Brewing Museum Pt. 1 The Brewery

If you happen to find yourself in Tartu, Estonia and love beer, make sure to make time to visit the historic A. Le Coq brewery and beer museum.  While the beer is decent, and the tour informative, the museum really steals the show.  For any beer nerd its really a must see! Nowhere else in the world can you find such a range of exhibits covering the history of beer and brewing.    Housed in an old malt kiln there are 6 floors covering the history of beer brewing from its history in ancient Egypt to the modern brewing industry.  While they collections and exhibits are broad , they are not encyclopedic in depth and there are a few things left out, but overall the museum provides an incredible overview of this fascinating subject.  Tours are 3 euro and include beer at the end, money  well spent.

I had the opportunity to tag along on a recent tour and gained a lot of new insights into beer making in the Baltic.  In this first post I will cover the brewery itself, while subsequent posts will cover the museum as well as insights into Estonian homebrewing.

Part 1.  The Brewery

IMG_7616A. Le Coq has had a long and interesting history as you might expect from an Estonian brewery founded by French Huguenots  that got its start by importing British beers to the Russian Empire!  Throw in the fact that the brewery has been repeatedly sold, looted and nationalized and its remarkable that it exists at all today!

Without going into to much detail the history can be roughly summarized as follows.  A. Le Coq was founded in 1807 by French Huguenots living in Prussia who wanted to sell British stouts and porters to the Russian market.  Apparently Russian Czars had a real hankering for jet black beers and the strong stouts and porters of 19th century Britain were just the ticket.  Business was good and around the turn of the 20th century A. Le Coq sought to purchase a brewery in Russia to manufacture stouts domestically instead of importing them from the UK.  They settled on a brewery in Tartu, Estonia (then part of Russia).  Tartu was an ideal location because the hard, calcium rich water was very similar to the water of the great stout producing regions of the British Isles (think Dublin, or London).  A deal was struck and the rest was as they say history, except in this case what followed was even more interesting.  The newly minted A. Le Coq brewery did a bang up business selling domestically produced Russian Imperial Stouts and German style lagers to the domestic market for only 2 years before the brewery was ransacked by Russian anarchists and then ravaged by the retreating German army in WWI.

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Brewery today, modern production occurs on the left, while the right hand side encompasses the malt silos and museum

Not to be deterred the brewery re-opened in 1921 and did well enough to by several other competing breweries before being nationalized in 1941 when Soviet Russia invaded.  The brewery was reopened under the name Tartu Õlletehas.  Estonia was subsequently conquered by Nazi Germany, before being reconquered by the Soviets at the close of WW2.  With the fall of the Iron Curtain the brewery became a state run enterprise.  When Estonia finally regained its independence the brewery was privatized and rebranded A. Le Coq and is now owned by the Finnish Brewing conglomerate Olvi.    And that is the story of how an Estonian brewery, with a French name, making British and German beers came to be  owned by a Finnish conglomerate.    If you found that confusing or intriguing check out the Brewery website for the full story.IMG_7491Against all odds the brewery is still in business in its original building in Tartu.  Today it produces over 60 million liters of beer annually and is the second biggest brewery in Estonia after Carslberg owned Saku.  Along with Viru Õlu and Saku, they account for 95% of all beer sales in Estonia.  So the brewing industry today is very similar to the U.S. beer market prior to the microbrewing revolution that took place in the 80s and 90s with just three breweries dominating the domestic market.  In addition to beer, A. Le Coq also manufactures soft drinks hard ciders, alco-pop and juice.  The beer line-up is is dominated by pale euro lagers in various strengths, that are mostly marketing gimmicks, but they do offer a few other styles that are worth seeking out.

IMG_7486The brewery itself has undergone significant renovations in the last decade and is now a true state of the art facility with fully automatic production and gleaming stainless steal everywhere.  Hard to believe that up until 2003 they were still malting their own grain in century old malt kiln!  Gone are any semblances of the old, everything today is about as modern as you can get, although the brewery still holds on to some of its history and heritage through the brewing museum.  IMG_7498

Estonian Beer Review: Saku Koduõlu

Sahti is one of my favorite styles of beer; I’ve always been intrigued by exotic beers with unusual flavors and my career in forestry has made me especially keen to sample beers that use trees as ingredients. My first successful attempt at homebrewing was actually a Sahti inspired Belgian ale, which was quite ambitious for a novice homebrewer to pull off.  As a new brewer, I was overwhelmed by the creative possibilities of brewing and reached for the stars and decided to combine, juniper, honey, orange zest, coriander and Wyeast’s Forbidden Fruit ale yeast into a double strength concoction that would be used to ring in the end of skis season and the start of spring.  Instead of landing amongst the stars, I probably landed on the moon, but for my second batch of beer I was thrilled and the positive feedback kept me coming back for more.

So naturally being in the Baltic I’ve kept my eye open for examples of this style.  I’m pleased to report that while not ubiquitous, Sahti brewing is alive and well both in Finland and Estonia.  I recently sampled a fine commercial example of the style from Estonia, Koduõlu.

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mmmmm! Sahti! Terviseks!

The name Koduõlu mean literally homebrew.  True to style its hazy, with lots of sediment and big bite of juniper. While Finland gets all the credit for this style its actually a shared style brewed in Finland, the Swedish Island of Gotland and the Estonian island of Saaremaa. In all three areas beers were traditionally brewed with rye and barley,  because of the primitive sparging techniques and difficulties in mashing rye, brewers traditionally filtered their wort with juniper boughs giving this style one of its most unique characteristics.  Juniper also gives the beer a nice bitterness and eliminates the need for hops. I had long thought this was because hops couldn’t grow in such a cold and inhospitable climate as Finland, but a resent trip to Finland proved my assumptions wrong.  They actually can grow quite well in Finland, up to 20cm per day!  So the lack of hops in this style doesn’t reflect the inability to grow hops so much as the tradition of using more ancient brewing techniques used to make gruit.

Now on to the review!

Appearance-Deep orange, very hazy with a thick off-white head with good retention, plenty of yeast sediment in the bottle to swirl and add or leave alone depending on your preference

Smell-Slightly spicy with hints of alcohol and clove, some peachy esters

Taste-Mild fruity sweetness upfront, esters reminiscent of oranges, balanced by woody tannins from juniper with a dry and slightly mineral finish.

Mouthfeel– Medium to full bodied with medium low carbonation.

Overall-This beer is actually a very tame and approachable example of this style geared for a commercial market.  Nevertheless, this beer hasn’t been dumbed down in anyway, and came be thought of as a Sahti gateway beer; opening the drinkers world up to new and even more exotic examples of this quixotic style.  Highly recommended

Latvian Beer Review: Brālis bitter

In a land of malt-forward lagers, finding a hoppy beer is like…

FINDING THE HOLY GRAIL!

At least if you love Humulus lupulus.

IMG_7636Based out of Riga, Latvia SIA Alus Nams, produces a wide range of Latvian microbrews.  I was able to sample a few on a recent trip, and while some beers left a bit to be desired, I really enjoyed their Brālis bitter.

I couldn’t find any information on what style they were going for, but it tasted to me like hoppy lager.  It could have been an ale, but really had almost no ester character and was super clean, since most of their other beers are lagers I assume this one is as well.

Appearance-golden with good clarity and a surprisingly tan head, at least for so light a beer.

Smell-Wow you can actually smell hops!  what a change after other Baltic beers that tend to go very light on the hop aroma.  Smell like UK varieties although I don’t know which, earthy and floral, and not citrus like at all.  Also a really nice pilsner malt aroma

Taste-Very clean and crisp on the palate with bitterness to match, lots of pilsner character

Mouthfeel- Medium bodied with medium carbonation

Overall- A pretty nice, hoppy-beer from Latvia. Worth seeking out if you find yourself in Eastern Europe and are missing hops.