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Estonia free to revive its own brewing culture

On my last visit to Estonia, there was snow on the ground. One of the most vivid memories was a horse-drawn sled gliding across the fields. This time, there was bright sun, and the fields were ablaze with dandelions and buttercups, but I still managed to see a horse pulling a plough.

Much else had changed. Last time, Estonia was still under Soviet rule. Now, it is independent.

The new middle class have Fords and VWs. I even spotted a Lada laggard talking into his cax phone as he spluttered dangerously down a lovely cobbled street.

For reasons I could not quite pinpoint, the man who came to interview me for Estonian television was wearing a cowboy hat, kerchief, shirt bulging with a pack of Marlboro, and jeans.

I did not have the heart to tell him that smoking is now a capital offence in The Land of the Free. Nor would a beer called Rock (as in music) be thought hip in the territories of Samuel Adams and Anchor Liberty, but I let that pass, too.

After all, we were were enjoying our drink in a well-regarded beer bar: Karja Kelder, in the medieval Old Town of Tallinn, the capital. And our companions were members of the Imperial Beer Club, named possibly after the stout or more probably after a long-gone cafe. "What's your favourite beer song?" demanded one member.

My mind went blank. "What about a beer joke?" suggested another.

I thought of the story, the very old story, of the man who drowned in a brewery tank but not before getting out three times to relieve himself.

Judging from the hilarity, they had not heard it before.

Karja Kelder, in the vaulted cellars of a former brewery at 1 Vaike Kaija, has a limited selection, but it does offer the traditional beer-snack of boiled salted broad beans.

Such rituals are very important to Estonians, who can be a captious crowd.

"Where are the bits of bacon?" demanded one, poking around among the beans.

"Where's the garlic rye bread?" asked another. I busied myself with a succulently moist, barley-studded black pudding. Let us hope such pleasures are not sacrificed to dry-roast peanuts or taco chips.

Under Soviet rule, Estonia could never progress far beyond 1945. As it tries to gallop through five decades in as many years, I pray it manages not to devastate its heritage in the way we did during the 1950s and 60s.

Just outside Tallinn, I re-visited the Saku brewery among the pines on what was once a nobleman's estate.

Its history as an estate brewery goes back to at least 1820, and in 1876-7 a new "steam brewery" was built.

On my first visit, I had seen buildings from the turn of the century among the much more utilitarian structures of the Soviet period.

Not much had changed externally. Inside was a beautiful new brewhouse, with vessels in the traditional shapes made from copper.

It was produced in Czechoslovakia, and may have been the last copper brewhouse built there. In the new Czech Republic, I believe, such equipment is made in stainless steel.

Once built, the brewhouse spent seven or eight years in mothballs before it could be installed thanks to Mr. Gorbachev's campaign against alcohol.

When Estonia ceased to be a Soviet Republic the brewery was privatised, with a substantial share in the hands of Hartwall of Finland and Pripps of Sweden.

The new brewhouse is now in operation, and I tasted some of its products.

They are now all-malt, cleaner and more aromatic than in the old days, but more "international" in character.

The regular Pilsner is fresh-tasting and slightly grainy, with 22 units of bitterness. A new product called Original (bitterness 26) is smoother and drier. I preferred the crisper, more bitter, Hele (pale), with 32, and the malty, lightly toffeeish, amber-red Tume (dark).

In midsummer, there was none of the brewery's malty, coffeeish Porter, the only one currently made in Estonia and available only at Christmas.

It was Porter that first took me to Estonia in 1990. I have always been fascinated by the story of British exports of Porter to the Baltic in the 1700s and 1800s.

They were, after all, the origins of what we would now call Russian Imperial Stout.

I had especially enjoyed the saga of the Belgian Le Coq company and its British successors, who bought a brewery in 1910-12 to produce the style in the important town of Tartu in the south-eastern part of the country.

I have told the story several times, and will not labour it again, save to say that I was anxious for another look at the Tartu brewery now that Estonia is once again independent.

On my first visit, I had the impression that for all my attempts to explain, the manager could not quite grasp why I had come so far to see his brewery.

There were new managers this time, and they had caught up with my interest.

When I first saw photographs of the brewery, I was taken with its round castellated tower.

When I finally got there, I discovered that it was more than ornament: it was a maltings.

Although the germination vessels were of the drum type, the kilning floors were circular, like the tower, with rakes turning from a central pivot.

On my return, I was pleased to see the maltings still working.

I was told that the first drum maltings in the world was built in Scotland in 1876, and that the one in Tartu was the second.

As to the circular kiln, the mapagement said the only other example, long gone, had been in the Baltic city of Konigsberg.

Very little had changed at Tartu. I tasted a sweetish Pilsner, a drier lager called Rae, a firmer Export type known as Alexander, and a richer, stronger (1068; six per cent alcohol by volume) one with the simple name Tartu Beer.

The brewery has made no Porter for decades, but promises to do so this Christmas. As a gesture in that direction, it has already restored the Le Coq signature to its labels.

As to the future of the brewery itself, there were developments on the very day I called.

A representative of the Finnish brewing company Sinebrychoff was there exploring possibilities for co-operation.

It is hard to imagine the historic makings continuing to operate if control were to pass to such a technologically advanced company, yet to silence it would be like chopping down a cherry orchard.

It was hard to escape such Chekhovian thoughts as I was shown around the hilly town, thick with maples and Iiridens, and dotted with pastel-painted houses.

The town square faces on to a river and bridge, the arch of which is ritually, and suicidally, climbed by university students drunk with relief at their graduation.

The favoured student hang-out is yet another vaulted cellar, a restaurant called Humal (Hop) at 9 Kuutri.

There we were greeted by members of the local beer club anxious for the day's news from the brewery.

Tartu, first mentioned in 1030 and a university town since 1632, is a crucible of Estonian culture. I hope its famous tower continues to rattle to the turning of malt in the kiln.


Published Online: SEPT 2, 1998
Published in Print: AUG 1, 1994
In: What's Brewing

Brew Travel

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