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