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Soviet breweries have been making a dash for market freedom, reports Michael Jackson

Some breweries began at inns, others at monasteries or manors...and one or two at collective farms. With the demise of the Eastern Bloc, collective farms are being privatised, and their breweries face an uncertain future.

That is why I was keen to see two which, at least for the moment, survive in Estonia. I went with a group of Estonian friends.

From the capital, Tallinn, we headed north and east along the coast road, the industrial outskirts giving way to farmland and then forest.

We were traveling in the direction of St. Petersburg, about 200 miles away.

About 40 miles along the road, we came to the village of Haljala. With a Lutheran church, small, neatly kept and painted white, and a wooden bridge across a little lake, it seemed much too pretty to be the centre of an institution as allegedly dehumanising as a collective farm.

At about 50,000 acres, this had been Estonia's biggest collective, producing milk, beef, potatoes, barley and beer.

The brewery, called Viru, after the old name for northern Estonia, was built as a facility of the collective farm as recently as 1975.

It was seen as an important revenue-earner, helping raise money for public amenities such as schools; in so far as possibly, the collective was self-contained.

"The last task of the collective was to mend the roof of the church," I was told.

"Do people attend?" I asked. "The very young and the very old," came the answer. "Especially at Christmas."

Now the state is renting land to the farmers, and some is being returned to people who can prove a family claim.

The employees of Viru were given a right to shares in the enterprise, which is now a joint venture with the small Danish brewing company Harboes.

Behind tubular steel, meshed gates, the Viru brewery is a utilitarian structure, though its rendered buildings have been given a softening lick of pastel paints in green and pink.

The barley is malted some miles away, and the brewery has its own well.

The female head brewer, who displayed her rank on her white coat, was vague about the precise origin of the hops, which were from Germany. The kettles are of traditional shape, cast-iron, painted cream.

A golden lager named Toolse, after a local mansion, was on the grainy side. A dark counterpart called Palmse, named after another mansion, was pleasantly malty, despite the use of some sugar-based caramel.

Before Estonian independence, more than half of this small brewery's beer was sent north, across the nearby state-line to what was then the Russia Federation.

Now, with excise barriers rendering that difficult, sales have to be established in the bigger towns of Estonia.

The brewery's director resembles the soccer manager Jack Charlton, not only physically but also in manner.

He seemed easy-going and amiable, but quietly very much in charge.

It emerged that he was also on the board of the local bank, and was active in the local social life. He told me he saw the brewery as the industry that could economically hold together the community.

Before independence, he had run the whole collective farm.

I wondered, but could scarcely ask him, how he was regarded, being a survivor from the old order.

When I made discreet inquiries, I learned that he had been held in the highest regard for his energy and effectiveness; the region had, for example the best roads and services in the north.

"You had to carry a party card if you wanted to make yourself useful, but that was just a matter of form," one of the locals told me.

Later still, it emerged that the manager had, as a child, seen his mother for the last time when she was sent to Siberia. Why? "Because we were a well-off family."

This discussion was over a few beers in the brewery tap, the Three Steins - a small room with standing room at four tables and a terrace that could have been in the Wild West.

"I spent my childhood in Siberia," observed the yellow-bearded drinker with whom we had fallen into conversation.

I drank my beer, ate my pickles, sausages and kasha, and was grateful for a less challenging life.

Farther down the road, near the village of Nigula, we rumbled up a track to a scatter of buildings that looked like a farm.

The oldest structure, dating from the 1880s, was once a distillery, belonging to the local count.

It is now a brewery, similar to Viru in the period and design of its equipment.

Like Viru, the brewery now buys in its raw materials, but it once supported its own maltings, fed by its collective farm.

The spent grains in turn provided feed for cattle on the farm, and probably still do.

The head brewer at Nigula is also a woman, and I noticed that she had prettied the place with pink curtains. She told me that she had originally intended to be a gynaecologist.

Vaulted cellars were a reminder of its antiquity as a distillery. The sole beer, a golden lager, had a certain malty freshness, sweet at the start and drying toward the finish.

Again, there are local shareholders, but much of the equity has been sold to four principals.

While the head brewer leafed through a scrapbook, showing me moments from the brewery's history, one of the principals sat in silence in a dark plaid suit.

He appeared to be bored, but perhaps had the excuse that he spoke neither English nor Estonian. He was a new capitalist from across the Russian border.

Not everyone who speaks Russian comes from that country. Nor are all the Russian-speakers in Estonia new capitalists. Many came in the old days, from all parts of the former Soviet Union.

The sizable town of Sillamae, close to the coast and about 20 miles from the border, remains entirely Russian-speaking.

It was a defence industry town in the old days; now it has a very high rate of unemployment.

Konstantin Jedsenev, a Kazak, came to Sillamae to work in 1978. He later became associated with a company processing metals for the defence industry. In the first flush of capitalism, the company decided to invest some of its profits into the building of a brewery for the community.

The building looks like a concrete fortress, but a tiny cartoon on the door reveals that it is a brewery. "Have a beer!" said Mr. Jeksenev.

"Could we perhaps look first, and then sample?" I venture.

"We have a custom here that people sample first," came the smiling response.

The beer, which came in a litre glass, was a superbly malty dark-brown lager of just over 5 per cent alcohol by volume.

The malt, hops, yeast and brewing equipment all came from Germany, and a Munich consultant was being used.

The result was one of the best Munich-style lagers I have tasted, and one of the best beers of any description that I have encountered in "Eastern" Europe.

The customary female head brewer (from Belarus, I seem to recall) was on maternity leave.

The brewing was being carried out by a food technologist from the Ukraine. I hope this unlikely enterprise survives, not least for the splendour of its beer.

Mr. Jeksenev insisted that, according to another custom, we eat some of the salted dried, tiny fish - an indigenous version of smelt caught in the lake that forms the northern border between Estonia and Russia.

These are much enjoyed by Estonians, and my friends had a taste for more.

He told us where we could buy a box of them, some miles away at a house by the lake.

It had been a long day, and Mr. Jeksenev's ministrations had been considerable; dusk was turning to dark.

In the car, I fell asleep, then was jolted by our coming to a halt, at what turned out to be the house of the little fish.

I blinked into wakefulness. Across the lake, the lights of Russia winked wryly back.

Published Online: OCT 1, 1997
Published in Print: SEPT 1, 1994
In: What's Brewing

Brew Travel

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