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
A. 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.
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.Against 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.
The 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.