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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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.

Estonian Beer Review: A. Le Coq Premium

IMG_6396A. Le Coq brewery in Tartu was started in the 1800s as beer distribution business designed to import imperial stout from London to Russia.  In 1913 the Justus Schramm Brewery in Tartu Estonia (founded 1826) was purchased with the intent of producing beers for the Russia market domestically.    It has since undergone a number of different owners and iterations, including being run as the Tartu Õlletehas or Tartu Brewery under Soviet occupation.  In its current form, (owned by the finnish company Olvi)  it produces a number of beers and ciders as well as non-alcoholic offerings like juice and sports drinks.  Its most popular offering and indeed the most popular beer in Estonia is A. Le Coq Premium.

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Tartu Town Hall

I had the pleasure of sampling this beer at a patio bar not far from the historic town square of Tartu.  While I’m not a huge fan of the Euro lager style (think beer in the green bottles)  this one was quite pleasing.  I found it balanced and easy to drink, with no real off flavors and would recommend it as a fine beer to order if you ever find yourself in Estonia (4/5).  For those of you familiar with Grainbelt Premium from the August Schells Brewery in New Ulm, MN, I found this beer to be almost a dead ringer.  Went quite well with a meal of hearty sausages and potatoes.

Full Review

Appearance-Pale gold with a frothy white head and relatively high carbonation  (4.5/5)

Smell-Reminiscent of many American style lagers, light hay and noble hops with earthy barley (4/5)

Taste -Pretty standard. An all around well balanced lager, perhaps a bit hoppier than some in this category, but quite tasty overall (3.5/5)

Mouth feel -highly carbonated, yet with a full mouth feel for so light a beer almost creamy.  (4/5)
Overall – If you like pale euro lagers this is about as good as they get. If you love IPAs or RIS this style probably doesn’t appeal as much. Still a worthwhile offering. Unlike a lot of Euro lagers this one is still brewed in the same town that if was originally brewed in. (4/5)

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!