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.


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!