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.


Traditional mash tun


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.


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.



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.


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.


  • 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.

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.

    Beer filter press, sheets of cotton or asbestos were used to filter beer before centrifuges and diatomaceous earth.


    Counter pressure bottle filler


    Copper plate style wort chiller


    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.


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

On the origins and relationships between bread and beer

As I alluded to in my previous post, bread and beer have both been proposed as impetus for the development of agriculture and civilization.  While it is unclear which came first, or which was the more important, it is clear that at least some early bread baking was done for the explicit purpose of brewing beer.  Coarse loaves made of ground barley, or emmer wheat (an ancient husked variety of wheat) would be baked until partially cooked and then mixed with water to form a mash. Enzymes in the warm mash would convert the starches to sugar and the sweet wort would then be run through a strainer and transferred to fermentation vessels.  The Egyptians later developed more sophisticated techniques similar to modern day mashing that involved germination of the grain and a primitive form of kilning.  The Sumerians never achieved this level of sophistication and instead used the same bread to beer process as the early Egyptians.  This process is still used today to make some fermented beverages like kvass or bouza  A major difference between the ancient Egyptians and Sumerians and other beer producing cultures was that the Egyptians strained their beer prior to fermentation, while  the Sumerians primarily used drinking straws to accomplish the same feet after fermentation

Sumerian drinking straw

Sumerian drinking straws

Fermentation was probably initially a chance event, but ancient brewers quickly figured out that adding some bubbling sourdough worked quite well.  The image below is an Egyptian hieroglyphic showing the ancient process of making bread and turning it into beer.  Bread and beer were often produced in the same building, and since they came from the same raw materials beer really was liquid bread!

A History of Beer and Brewing.  Ian Hornsey.  2003.  Royal Society of Chemistry

Egyptian hieroglyphics detailing the process of making beer from bread.                                                                           -A History of Beer and Brewing.                                          Ian Hornsey. 2003. Royal Society of Chemistry

Although the process of brewing beer and baking bread began to evolve separately after ancient Egypt, the industries remained mutualistic up until quite recently.  Bakers could produce sourdough bread from wild fermentation (containing a mix of bacteria and wild yeast), or obtain relatively pure yeast from brewers.  As brewing technology improved during the industrial revolution, it became possible to make bread that wasn’t sour because pure cultures of Saccharomyces cerevisiae could be obtained.  In the 1800s commercial bakeries got most of their yeast from breweries.  However, as lagers replaced ales in popularity, bakers were forced to find new sources of yeast because lager yeast Saccharomyces pastorianus works much slower than ale yeasts and doesn’t produce good bread.  This lead to the development of bread yeast as we know them today.

Baking yeast as we know it is a culture of Saccharomyces cerevisiae specifically selected to work fast in bread doughs and produce lots of carbon dioxide.  The speed of this strain means that bread made with it takes less time to rise and is more airy.  One of the major disadvantages of sourdough cultures is that they are much slower than commercial bread yeasts. Modern bread yeast bears little resemblance to ale yeast even though they are closely related.  Ale yeasts are highly flocculant (meaning they clump together and fall out of suspension)  whereas bread yeast is a low flocculator.  In addition, ale yeast tend to produce far more estery flavor compounds than does bread yeast, which can produce many nasty phenolic flavors when used for alcoholic beverage production.  Supposedly ale yeast can be used in bread production to produce richer tasting breads (albeit over a long time frame), but I have yet to experiment much with this myself.  What I have however experimented with is making bread from beer.  Beer can add a wonderful flavor and complexity to your bread, stay tuned for recipes and recommendations.

Na zdrowie!

Beer, Culture, and the Roots of Civilization


Beer conjures many different emotions and images in our modern world.  Beer is celebration, beer is refreshing, beer is sex, beer is sports, beer is low-brow, beer is sophisticated, beer is craft, beer is strength, beer is American, beer is Euro.  Beer is marketed and sold as all of these things and more, and yet marketing agencies still give us a very myopic view of what beer is.

To me beer is important; important enough to devote a whole blog to it.

Beer has been around since the dawn of civilization and may even have been the primary motivation for it!  There is considerable debate over the primary forces that drove nomadic peoples in the Fertile Crescent to settle down and form permanent settlements, but the two most commonly cited motivations are for beer and bread.  And of these, beer seems the more likely motivation.  By most accounts, hunter gatherers and nomadic peoples actually expend fewer calories to obtain food than those who practice agriculture.  Anyone who has ever planted a garden knows that agriculture can involve back breaking labor and that nature can be a fickle mistress.  So why would anyone even bother farming if hunting and gathering was so much easier?

Maybe alcohol had something to do with it.

It is easy to imagine early man discovering the psychotropic effects of alcohol by consuming overripe fruit that had begun to ferment.  Filled with euphoria and he began to talk to the gods, but such experiences would have been fleeting and hard to duplicate.  Beer may have been a slightly later discovery and could have involved a hunter gatherer who discovered that germinated grass seeds that had gotten wet produced the same sorts of mind altering effects.  In any case, the discovery of grain beverages was critical because it made making alcohol possible year round.  With this advent there could have been the possible motivation to settle down and farm.

Direct evidence of this comes from two of the earliest civilizations the Alcohol ancient Sumerians and Egyptians, both of whom held beer in high esteem.  Egyptian tombs and temples are replete with hieroglyphics showing beer consumption and the brewing process.  In both societies beer was a basic commodity, a staple, and form of currency. Beer was important in religious ceremonies (as well as mead) and would have also been a symbol of fertility.  The Sumerian “Hymn of Ninkasi” dating around 2000 BCE celebrates the goddess of brewing Ninkasi and recounts a recipe for ancient beer

You are the one who soaks the malt in a jar

The waves rise, the waves fall.

Ninkasi, you are the one who soaks

the malt in a jar

The waves rise, the waves fall.

You are the one who spreads the cooked

mash on large reed mats,

Coolness overcomes.

Ninkasi, you are the one who spreads

the cooked mash on large reed mats,

Coolness overcomes.

You are the one who holds with both hands

the great sweet wort,

Brewing [it] with honey and wine

(You the sweet wort to the vessel)

Ninkasi, (…)

(You the sweet wort to the vessel)

The filtering vat, which makes

a pleasant sound,

You place appropriately on [top of]

a large collector vat.

Ninkasi, the filtering vat,

which makes a pleasant sound,

You place appropriately on [top of]

a large collector vat.

When you pour out the filtered beer

of the collector vat,

It is [like] the onrush of

Tigris and Euphrates.

Ninkasi, you are the one who pours out the

filtered beer of the collector vat,

It is [like] the onrush of

Tigris and Euphrates.

It is clear that beer had a powerful influence on the roots of civilization and just as society and civilization has continued to evolve so has beer.  While the beer we drink today bears little cosmetic similarity to the fermented grain beverages of the ancient world, the process is not so different and demands much the same culture and care as in the ancient world.  Beer starts with grain which is germinated, kilned and ground, infused with water to produce a sweet mash and fermented.

Beer is a cultured product and cultural one.  The words agriculture, cultivate, culture, and cultivation all share similar roots and etymology deriving from the Latin cultura meaning to tend, to care for, to guard and to honor.  Beer is cultured, meaning that it is a product of microbial metabolic processes (fermentation by single celled organisms called yeast) but it is also cultural.  Styles of beer like stout, pilsner, pale ale, etc  are connected to a place and time of origin and reflect cultural tastes and aesthetic as well as advances in technology and ingenuity (a subject for future posts).

To me the long and illustrious history of beer and its symbiosis with society is a continuing source of inspiration and fascination.  For without beer there would be no civilization.  May your next pint bring you closer to the gods, and enlightenment

Na zdrowie!