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!

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.

 

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

Estonian Beer Review: A Le. Coq Porter

After trying A Le. Coq’s flagship I was eager to try their porter.  This region of the world is synonymous with these dark and complex beers which were often brewed in the UK for export to Russia.  This example bills itself as a Baltic porter and clocks in at 6.5%.

While it really looks beautiful in the glass, it unfortunately leaves a lot to be desired.

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Full review below:

Appearance-Jet black color with a 1″ creamy tan head

Smell-Hints of roast grain but not much going on

Taste-Really off, was very dry and astringent for a porter with no maltiness or sweetness and a weird DMS or corny sour flavor in the background

Mouthfeel-Medium bodied medium carbonation

Overall-Avoid, hardly a porter, just bad tasting dark beer.

Beet Kvass

One of the down sides of my travel to Estonia is that I’ve had to take a 4 month hiatus from brewing beer and baking bread (My apartment’s kitchen is tiny and lacks an oven).  But rest assured this doesn’t mean that I’m not fermenting things!

Over the past month I’ve been trying my best to embrace the vibrant food culture of Estonia and Eastern Europe, which is big on fermented foods of all sort, from beer and vodka, to sourdough, kefir, kvass and sauerkraut.  While trying to come up with a short list of dishes to try while I’m here I came across some interesting recipes for borscht that call for fermented beets.  Since I love beets, and all things fermented, this seemed right up my alley, and I decided I had to give it a try.

There are hundreds of variations on borscht, but a few things are constant.

  1. Beets… its not borscht if it isn’t red and made with ’em
  2. Broth or stock, this can be beef, mushroom, fish or vegetable, but there is usually a salty savory component
  3. A sour note, this can come from either naturally fermented beets or some other acid like lemon juice.  I’ve made it both ways and will say that the fermented soup was hands down the winner.

    Beets!

    Wear an apron cause these things stain!

So how do we go about fermenting vegetables like beets?  For a brewer it seems like a weird concept, but fortunately its ridiculously easy to do, and produces a wonderful sour liquid that can be drunk on its own as a refreshing beverage or used as the foundation for a knock yours socks off batch of borscht!

So let us begin!  You’ll need 3 medium sized red beets, water and food safe plastic container or a sauce pan you don’t mind sacrificing for a few days.  It will take between 2-5 days for the beets to ferment so if you want to make borscht plan accordingly.

Beets chopped and ready to go!

Beets chopped and ready to go!

  • Step 1. Peel the beets
  • Step 2. Dice the beets into cubes about 1/2″ in size
  • Step 3. Place the beets in a pan or other non-reactive food safe container
  • Step 4. Add water until the beets are covered by 1/2-1″ of water
  • Step 5. Place in room temperature area away from direct sunlight and wait and let the magic happen…

My beets took 3 days, but I didn’t make borscht until day 4.  The longer you wait the more sour the liquid will become.  Its really up to you when you think its ready, but I would suggest no more than 6 days.

Beets Day 1

Beets Day 1

Taste the liquid after 2 days taste daily until you’re satisfied, I found mine to be about as sour as lemonade.  I’ve heard that sometimes mold can develop on the surface of the liquid as it ferments but didn’t observe that myself. If this occurs, simply remove it with a clean spoon before using.

Beets Day 2!  Almost ready

Beets Day 2! Almost ready

I’m somewhat skeptical that its actually mold because of how acidic and anoxic the surface becomes during fermentation and imagine that those that report mold are actually seeing a pellicle formed by symbiotic yeast and bacteria. If in doubt throw it out, but there really is no reason to worry.

If you want to try the kvass as a drink, simply strain and chill, it will have a slight fizz to it and a wonderful sour-earthy flavor.

If using for soup retain the beets with the liquid and begin preparing your soup (recipe for borscht to follow). Terviseks!

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Beets day 4, active fermentation has subsided and the kvass is ready

Rugutis goes to Estonia

Bad News: I have taken a forced 4 month hiatus from brewing. I didn’t even get to use all of the hops I grew this summer 😦

Great News: Work has brought me to Estonia for 4 months. Just a hop skip and a jump from the lands Rugutis inhabits.

Estonian Flag as Winter landscape

Look for Baltic beer tastings, brewery tours, some history and maybe secrets on how to make really awesome rye bread!

IMG_6302Terviseks!