Four years ago, if you walked into a Tallinn bar and asked for a local beer, you’d get one of two options: Saku or A Le Coq. If you asked for an imported beer, you’d be faced with Carlsberg or Heineken. And if you asked for something more premium, you’d be met with a bewildered stare, or if you were lucky, an overpriced glass of Stella Artois.
Fast forward to today, and it’s probably you who will be bewildered by the huge choice of local and craft beers available in just about every establishment in town. Tallinn is going through something of a beer revolution.
It all started with a trickle of craft beers (these are beers that focus on taste and quality ingredients, produced by small scale breweries, often edgy with a range of styles and high abv intended to be drunk to appreciate, not inebriate) imported to Estonia to counteract the mass produced beers that were pouring and boring drinkers who wanted something alternative. These beers had attitude. They had taste. They had aroma. In short, they were something that hadn’t been available before. Beer was now THE product on everyone’s lips, and the market was invigorated. If craft beer wasn’t available in the bars fridge, discerning drinkers and party goers would leave and go to another place that could satisfy their thirst.
Behind the scenes, Estonian home brewers were literally licking their lips. These guys had been experimenting with different beer styles in their kitchen, bedrooms and garages, but kept pretty quiet because they thought it was only a small section of beer geeks who would appreciate their efforts. All of a sudden there was a rapidly emerging market for their beers, and many of them gained the confidence to get out of their basements and onto the bigger stage.
Amongst the first was Ollenaut. The head brewer was a chef by day, and a bedroom brewer by night. He saw the opportunity to increase his volumes by buying a bigger piece of kit, and although still brewing at home, he could now start supplying bars and restaurants with view to setting up his own brewery once things took off. Across town, other home brewers had the same idea, and soon there were four craft brewers in Estonia, producing beer inspired by both their homeland, and also the imported craft beers which set the ball initially rolling.
The importers of the foreign brands weren’t out of the picture either. Due to the increase in demand for all things beer, more and more quality ales and lagers from Europe and America started to flood Estonia’s bars and shelves. Dedicated beer bars and shops started to open. Retail stores increased shelf space, and restaurants added beer to their wine list.
And the list of Estonian craft brewers just kept growing and growing. In the space of just eight months, zero small scale breweries became seven. Across the land from Tartu to Tallinn, Parnu to Saremaa, breweries were opening with the smell of hops and malt, becoming common place.
So what does it mean if you’re a beer drinker in Estonia now? It means you’re in a very lucky position. Estonia doesn’t really have a long history of beer, so the past three or four years have all been about catching up. And caught up they have. Many of the bedroom brewers highlighted earlier, have now made the transition of opening their own breweries. Most of them have listings in stores and bars. Some of them even have their own bars. Earlier this year, Tallinn hosted its own craft beer festival with over fifty breweries from not just Estonia, but all around the world taking part.
And if you missed out on the festival (it’s planned for each year though), then you’ve got plenty of bars to visit to get your craft beer fix. In the old town of Tallinn, there’s a dedicated beer restaurant selling beer paired with food. There’s a Belgian beer bar, and just down the street there’s a small bar of only 50 square metres selling over two hundred different beers.
Outside of the old town walls, in Tallinn’s creative district Telliskivi, there’s a beer shop, a craft beer bar, and a brewery tap selling Pohjala brews straight from it’s brewery. It’s the same story in Tartu and Parnu. These days, if you walk into an Estonian bar and ask for a Saku or an Al Le Coq, you’ll be getting the same bewildered stares you might have got four years ago, but for a different reason.
So what do these Estonian beers taste like? One thing Estonians are noted for, is their competitiveness and this in turn means that the Estonian brewers are all competing to make sure their beer is the best of the bunch. Here’s a look at some of the top beers from local brewers:
Põhjala ÖÖ (10.5% Imperial Baltic Porter). Pohjala are seen by many as the pioneers of Estonian craft brewing. These guys were the first to open a brewery in Tallinn, and since then have opened their own bar, and have been distributing their beer (they’ve created over 50) all across Estonia, Finland and Sweden. Often experimental with their brews, this beer set the benchmark and put them firmly on the brewing map. A rich, dark smoky beer with hints of coffee, as the name suggests (it means “night” in English), it’s designed to keep you warm during those cold winter evenings. Look out for the version aged for six months in sherry barrels.
Tanker Sauna Session (4.7% ale with birch). If there’s one thing that goes hand in hand with a sauna, it’s a beer. Tanker are a brewery set up just outside of Tallinn, and produce several beers with an Estonian theme. This ale is made with the addition of birch leaves, resulting in an unique tasting experience, which will make you want to strip off and sit behind some hot coals.
Ollenaut Eesti Rukki Eil (5.3% Rye Ale). Made using Estonian grown rye, the brewer has gone back to his baking roots to create a true liquid bread. Easy drinking and very satisfying, this apparently is the beer of choice for the Estonian president no less!
Lehe Heckle (4.7% pale ale). Lehe have a brewery in the small town of Keila, some 40 km outside of Tallinn. As well as embracing the trend for beer, they’ve also recognised the other growing fascination for stand up comedy. This beer is a collaboration between Lehe and Comedy Estonia, and is designed to be drunk at all the venues across the country whilst enjoying a night of entertainment. Light and fun, it’s a sign that not all things need to be serious to be enjoyed.
Sori Brewing Investor IPA (6.9% India Pale Ale). This beer gets its name from its concept. Put off by high tax prices in Finland, these brewers crowd sourced funds to set up a brewery in Tallinn, with everyone getting a share of the business. Investor IPA was the first beer the new shareholders got to taste. It’s a Finish owned, Estonian brewed beer with American hops. A true sign that Estonia is an international market place!
The beers listed above, are just the tip of the iceberg. Along with these brewers, are several more who are setting about establishing themselves as consistent brewers in Estonia. Look out for Vormsi, Poide, Vaat, Puhaste, Moe, Nöösker, Kalamaja. In fact, there’s new brews coming out from Estonian producers nearly every month. Couple this with the huge selection of award winning, global beers that are sitting alongside local beers, then that’s why this country is such an exciting place to be in right now if you love beer, or want to discover it.
There’s not such a country in Europe who has picked up the beer bug so recently, and has propelled it to the same levels as its established neighbours. The sheer embracement of beer, has really given the customer a huge playground to enjoy. Prepare to be amazed, not bewildered!
Written by James Ramsden