A weekly column by Roger A. Baylor.
Always tempting for some, but they makes no sense to me. Our choice for Spring Break 2016 was Tallinn, the capital of Estonia and a historic Baltic port city on the Gulf of Finland.
THE POTABLE CURMUDGEON: A few beers on Estonian time (Part One).
The Finnish and Estonian languages are related, and the curious thing about them is that words like Nokia and Saku sound Korean or Japanese to American ears, although these are a Finnish communications company and an Estonian brewer, respectively.
My first cell phone was a Nokia, and I got it in 2002. This was only a few years after Saku Brewing Company’s beers became sporadically available stateside.
It seems that in the beginning of the post-communist era, all sorts of formerly remote beer brands were shipped to places like Chicago, which historically was home to many Eastern European immigrants.
Occasionally these beers would dip into Northern Indiana and trickle south, and this pleased me to no end. Subject to ever-shifting availability, I stocked many of them at the Public House, including 16.9 oz bottles of Saku Porter.
Today Saku Brewing Company is owned by Carlsberg, and is brewed near Tallinn. The brewery traces its lineage to 1820 and a modest baronial estate’s brewhouse.
Saku Originaal, the brewery’s modern flagship golden lager, has been brewed only since 1993, and perhaps this owes to the brewery’s trials and travails during Estonia’s half-century within the Soviet Union, where quality wasn’t always prioritized.
Saku Originaal is perfectly adequate, though I personally prefer the Premium from A. Le Coq, Saku’s domestic competitor. Better still is Saku Tume, a dark lager somewhat in the Dunkel range. It was lip-smacking delicious with an appetizer of herring that was fried, then marinated.
|Saku Tume with herring.|
Admittedly, I wasn’t looking very hard for Saku Porter, which appears on the beer list at Põrgu Brasserie (below). Saku’s website refers to Porter as a “traditional Christmas beer,” and by doing so, it annoys me with the implication that “heavier” beer is suitable only in the coldest times.
Not necessarily true. On a very brief previous visit to Tallinn in 1999 with my friend Barrie, we easily found Saku Porter on draft at an eatery in the Old Town and drank several pints on the patio – in warm June weather, no less.
Of course, this was 17 years ago, and comparing Estonia then and now probably isn’t a particularly valid exercise.
Baltic Porter is a nebulous style that touches on several brewing traditions. It sometimes can be considered as an appellation of origin, but not always. In Michael “Beer Hunter” Jackson’s World Guide to Beer, he mentions a “Porter” still being brewed in the 1970s in what is now Slovakia, quite far away from the Baltic Sea.
And, the New Albanian Brewing Company’s first batch of Solidarity was brewed in 2005 within walking distance of water, albeit the Ohio River.
The Beer Judge Certification Program description for Baltic Porter indicates that top-fermented English-style Porters and strong Stouts may well have been the original impetus for dark beers brewed in places like Estonia, but German lager brewing techniques supplanted ale-making long ago, with results that eventually came to vary from place to place.
In my world, a style that is Foreign Extra Stout one time and Doppelbock the next suggests considerable tasting adventure. Accordingly, for a brief time in 2006 the Public House’s Baltic Porter list was nonpareil.
- Alderis Porteris (Latvia)
- Baltika 6 (Russia)
- Utenos Porter (Lithuania)
- Obolon Porter (Ukraine)
- Okocim Porter (Poland)
- Sinebrychoff Porter (Finland – an ale)
At the time, three beers we’d carried previously were unavailable.
- Saku Porter (Estonia)
- Dojlidy Porter (Poland)
- Zwiec Porter (Poland)
Since I drank most of these Baltic Porters myself, they were early examples of what came to be known as “pay packets,” as were the pizzas consumed alongside them. Small wonder the scales tipped at 275 lbs. back then.
Prior to our stay in Estonia, sparse Internet research revealed that the country is in the midst of a craft beer revolution.
Ten years ago, this knowledge would have compelled me to construct byzantine plots -- trips to other locales, special tastings, or one of those “all 10 must-visit Tallinn breweries and beer bars in one day, on foot” bacchanals that have combined over the years to erode my short term memory.
Now, my attitude has changed, and consequently, the beer hunting strategy for Tallinn was no strategy at all. There’d be enough good beers in the city to fill portions of six days, as well as a few nice places to drink them without relying on a crowd-sourced ratings aggregator to shape the itinerary.
And so it was, although in one glaring instance, it might have helped to check the crowd-sourced ratings aggregator first.
During our second night at Põrgu Brasserie, I spotted these hybrid words on the beer list and decided to try one: Saaremäe Pihtla Ölu (Koduõlu Farm Ale).
Out came a Belgian-style glass filled with under-carbonated, golden-orange liquid, circa 7.6% abv, with an rustic, earthy flavor and slightly phenolic overtones. Juniper? It was decidedly different, and as my mouth kept telling me it bore a resemblance to the Sahti we once enjoyed in Finland, my brain said no, “farm” always means Belgian Farmhouse Saison.
Not in this instance, it doesn’t. Had I known what Koduõlu means, all of this would have made more sense, so take it away, crowd-sourced ratings aggregator (specifically, Rate Beer).
A traditional ale style unique to three areas: Finland, the Swedish island of Gotland and the Estonian island of Saaremäe. There are subtle differences between them and also between sahti from different regions in Finland. In general however these are strong ales made with a combination of rye and barley malt. They have minimal hop character and instead receive most of their flavor by virtue of being filtered through juniper twigs. Most examples will exhibit a strong yeast character and many homebrewed traditional examples are made with baking yeast. Such yeast often generates a highly phenolic character as well. Some examples will also have a smoky character and this is particularly evident in gotlandsdricke.
Imagine that; not only farms, but farms on a single island. Estonia’s larger breweries already imitate Koduõlu, so there it is.
At 1,000 square miles, Saaremäe Island is the largest in what is called the West Estonian Archipelago, which is comprised of 500 islands located to the southwest of Tallinn, north of the city of Riga in neighboring Latvia.
During much of the Soviet period, access to Saaremäe was restricted for military reasons, and in terms of traditional brewing, isolation can be the perfect condition for retaining artisanal attitudes.
Sadly, in 2016 it would not have helped to know that a farm brewing culture exists on the island of Saaremäe, as we had no plans to leave Tallinn apart from a day trip via ferry to Helsinki. It will be a much different story next time, assuming there is a next time.
My prized, obscure white whale of a Koduõlu was consumed at Põrgu Brasserie, a first-rate cellar beer bar with a name (“hell” or “hades”) that lends itself to wicked analogies. There’s an outstanding beer list (15 taps and 100+ bottles) heavy on Estonian craft, but with international selections, too.
|Perusing the bottle list, with Koduõlu.|
A la carte snacks and entrees are reasonably priced, making Põrgu an excellent choice for a beer lover’s dinner. Menu items range from anchovy sandwiches, steak tartare and herring salad to filet mignon, duck and pork chops. Diana especially enjoyed the appetizer-sized portions of pork ribs.
Põrgu is conveniently located in the Old Town at the foot of Toompea hill, and for me it was love at first sight, reminiscent of other classic beer bars I’ve visited, such as ‘t Brugs Beertje, Estaminet Het Kasteelhof and ‘t Arendsnest.
For the record, my beers at Põrgu were Öllenaut Suitsu (Smoked) Porter, Põhjala Pime Öӧ (Barrel Aged Imperial Stout), Saaremäe Pihtla Ölu (Koduõlu Farm Ale),and Sori Winter Gorilla Baltic Porter.
It adds up to four different styles, four breweries, four excellent choices, a compact introduction to Estonian craft brewing, and the finest barrel-aged Imperial Stout I’ve had in a while.
Kudos to the emerging Estonian movement. May your revolution remain in your own hands.
Another establishment we richly enjoyed was Hell Hunt, meaning “gentle wolf.” At 23 years of age, this pub is a veritable old-timer in Estonian terms; recall that at its inception, while Estonia had successfully regained its independence, not all the Soviet troops stationed there had yet to depart.
Hell Hunt is situated in the Old Town, just a few blocks north of the tourist epicenter. We entered on Saturday afternoon and found a festive atmosphere, with the NBA playoffs (and soccer) on the big screen, and friendly service.
House beers at Hell Hunt are brewed (or relabeled) by Viru Brewing Company, Estonia’s third “big” brewery. Viru was founded in 1975 in Haljala, to the east of Tallinn, and since 1992 has been owned by Harboe of Denmark. The brewery’s standard golden lager flagship is called Puls, while the beer called Viru is brewed by A. Le Coq.
Why ask why? I drank neither of them. My draft choices were Hell Hunt’s house Ale and Tume (Dunkel), with fried Russian dumplings for munching. Diana had a Weihenstephaner Hefeweizen. The Miami Heat won the game.
We missed some of the other recommended beer bars around Tallinn, and it’s all right. What we had was enough. Estonia was a revelation, and I hope we return.
Back home, I find myself ruminating about past experiences in the former USSR and East Bloc. It leads me to wonder: Where were Tallinn’s “local” pubs in the 1980s? There’d have been the usual cafeterias and hotel bars, but what were the equivalents of the Czech pivnice or piwiarni in Poland? Do any remain?
It no longer matters, and yet I’m curious.
More Estonian time may be required to come to an answer.
May 16: THE POTABLE CURMUDGEON: A few beers on Estonian time (Part One).
May 9: THE POTABLE CURMUDGEON: Hip Hops ... A look at two new New Albany breweries.
May 2: SPRING BREAK
April 26: THE POTABLE CURMUDGEON: The mouse, the elephant, and a clash of nonpareils ... part two.
April 25: THE POTABLE CURMUDGEON: The mouse, the elephant, and a clash of nonpareils ... part one.
April 18: THE POTABLE CURMUDGEON: Euro ’85, Part 33 … All good things must come to a beginning.