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.
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.
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.