History of brewing in Estonia and an old recipe for Estonia beer

First off, credit where credit is due.  Much of the information in this post is drawn from information at the A. Le. Coq Brewery and Brewing Museum in Tartu.  If you are in town you really ought to check them out.

Estonia, like many countries of Northern Europe has a long and rich tradition of brewing.  For much of Estonia’s history beer brewing was a basic act of subsistence, as prior to the advent of municipal water treatment, beer was far safer to drink than water.  A century ago, brewing was an art carried out at nearly every farmstead.  However with the rise of commercial breweries like A. Le Coq, the practice of making beer at home became less and less common.  Today homebrewing survives in pockets throughout Estonia.  These traditions are best preserved on Estonia’s islands, in particular Saaremaa.

Estonians brewed beer throughout the year, but it was especially important for religious festivals both in pagan times (Midsummer) and after the conversion to Christianity (St. John’s Day).  The first descriptions of Estonian beer come from August Wilhelm Hupel, who in the 1770s refered to 4 different kinds of Estonian beer: bottled beer, stoup beer, table beer and ice cellar beer.  Bottled beer and table beer were most like ales and ice cellar beer must have been a some kind of lager and I believe stoup may have been a strong beer but am not entirely certain.  During the 18th century there were two different methods of mashing used in Estonia.  The first, the Livonian  or German method involved mixing ground malt with water and then heating it with hot stones.  This technique would have caused a lot of caramelization of the malt and the resulting beer would have been a a form of stein beer.  The other technique, known as the Swedish technique, involved making a malt dough, forming the dough into loaves, and then lightly baking the loaves.  After this the loaves were broken up into small pieces and then and mixed with hot water in to form a mash.  This technique is actually quite similar to the techniques used in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia.

The mash tun for the Swedish technique was typically a large wooden vessel, similar in shape to a half barrel.  The mash tun was lined with wooden staves followed by a layer of wood chips, followed by two layers of straw arranged crosswise to act as a filter bed.

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Traditional mash tun

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Simple millstone

A recipe from a cookbook in 1898 (M. Tõnnison), called for malting the barley at home by soaking a bag of grain in water for several days.  The barley was then removed from the water and allowed to sit for several days until the tips of the corn had turned white.   At that point it was spread on a clean floor about 1/2 foot deep and stirred until it had sprouted after this point it would have been dried and then ground to make a coarse flour.

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Malt drying floor at the A. Le Coq Brewery

According to the recipe, the malt flour was then mixed with water to form dough and then formed into loaves that were baked lightly.  The loaves were then crumbled and mixed with hot water in the mash tun.  The mash was given a saccharification rest of 30 minutes before being sparged.  Surprisingly the wort was never boiled, instead hops were boiled in water for 2 hours and then the reduced liquid was strained and the resulting hop tea was then added to the wort.  Hopping rates are given at 1/2 lb of hops for 2 pecks (4 gallons) of dry malt. I’ve done a few conversions and think this works out to be approximately 8oz of hops to 16lbs of malt or 225g of hops per 7.5 kg of malt.

The wort and hop tea solution was then allowed to cool to the temperature of “freshly milked milk” after which a quart of yeast was added.  The beer was allowed to ferment for 48-60 hours before it was kegged.  And of course cleanliness of equipment was stressed throughout the entire brewing process.

The hops grown and used in Estonia during the 18th century were most likely of noble stock, and may have include varieties similar to modern Saaz or Hallertau.  Even after hops had become widely adopted in Estonian brewing, shortages often forced brewers to make due with what they had, and so beers in rural areas may have been made with a wide range of herbs in addition to or in lieu of hops.  These likely included bog rosemary (potentially toxic, not recommended), tobacco (potentially toxic, not recommended), alder buckthorn berries (potentially toxic,not recommended), oregano and juniper.  Oregano, like hops, is thought to have some antimicrobial properties and was often added in the summer to keep beer from souring.  Juniper was often boiled with the water for sparging and in some cases a second weak beer would have been made from the second runnings from the mash; this was thought to be a common technique in Läänemaa.

Malts used in brewing likely included a mix of barley and up to 10% rye.  Because of the crude malting techniques used, malts would have been amber in color and may have been somewhat similar to modern Munich malt or Vienna malt.  Because all malt was kilned with wood fires, any beer made from it would have at least some lingering smokiness.  In Simuna, wild brome grass or rye brome were sometimes substituted for barley or rye.

Unfortunately for me, I haven’t been able to sample any authentic Estonia homebrews, so I can only imagine what such concoctions taste(d) like.  But at any rate they sound like interesting libations, and I may have to brew a batch when I get back to brewing in a few weeks.

Terviseks!

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A. Le Coq Brewery Tour and Brewing Museum Pt. 2 The Museum

The a tour of the A. Le Coq brewery is like almost any other brewery tour, you learn how beer is made and get to look at a lot of gleaming stainless steel before sampling some beer, but what really sets A. Le Coq apart is their beer and brewing museum.  The museum is housed in the old malt tower that was in use until 1998!  I don’t know of a single brewery in the US that malts their own grain, or even one that used to recently so I was quite impressed by this.

The tower was originally built in 1898 and most nearly all of the original equipment was still in use 100 years later!  The building itself is something of a Tartu icon.

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Malt tower, home of the brewing museum is the castle like structure in the upper left.

The museum sprawls over 6 floors and covers topics ranging from the ancient brewing techniques of Egypt and Mesopotamia, to Estonian home brewing, to early industrial brewing.

There really is a wealth of information here and there is no way I can cover half of it even in 10 posts so what follows is just some of the highlights of what I learned from my time there.

Ancient Egyptian Brewing

  • Ancient Egyptians had floating breweries!  When Pharaohs or other important dignitaries traveled on the Nile they often had smaller boats dedicated to baking and brewing that would tag along to keep the entourage well feed and well imbibed.

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  • An ancient Egyptian beer mug could hold 3 liters of beer and the laborers who built the great pyramids of Giza were given up to 3 mugs of beer per day!  Apparently beer for commoners was quite low in alcohol and maybe more similar to modern kvass otherwise there is no way that they could have built a single  house let alone great monuments of stone.
  • Ancient Egyptian nobility enjoyed a number of beer styles including some rather strong examples imported from modern day Syria and Turkey.  In contrast to imported beers, Egyptian beers tend to be quite low strength and therefore did not keep well.  Therefore beer was always made fresh, so Pharaohs were buried with slaves, ingredients, and equipment to make beer, but  not beer itself.

Malt Tower and Malting Drums

  •  Up until very recently A. Le Coq malted its own  barley.  The basement of the museum houses the malt drums that are now well over 100 years old and the only example of such equipment that has preserved anywhere in Europe.  Other floors contain portions of the kiln and the drying floors where the grain would have been dried.
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Historic photo of the A. Le Coq Malt drums

Historic Brewing Equipment

  • The museum also houses a large collection of historic brewing equipment ranging from a large medieval copper brew kettle, to early bottle fillers, corkers and beer filters.
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    Beer filter press, sheets of cotton or asbestos were used to filter beer before centrifuges and diatomaceous earth.

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    Counter pressure bottle filler

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    Copper plate style wort chiller

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    Medieval copper brew kettle

Odds and Ends

The museum also houses a number of beer related collections including a large number of bottle caps, and bottle labels.  One of the more unusual items is a bottle of A. Le Coq from the 1800s that was recovered from a shipwreck off the coast of Denmark

Estonian Brewing Traditions

The museum covers Estonian homebrewing techniques in great detail and also houses some nice examples of farmhouse brewing equipment, and a recipe for Finnish Sahti, which I will cover in a future post.