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Fortification at 'The Gibraltar of the North'

Big and rich beers from Finland's 'Suomenlinnan Panimo'

"The Gibraltar of the North" seemed an apt point at which to fortify myself with a locally-brewed strong Porter. It was not quite an Imperial Stout, but the influence was clear.

I was on one of four islands, little more than granite rocks, linked by footbridges and surrounded by battlemented walls. This impressive fortification, a couple of miles long, was called "Sweden's Castle" (Sveaborg) when that country was vying with Imperial Russia for control of the Baltic in the 1700s.

At another stage, when the fort was in Russian hands, the garrison there was victualled by Nikolai Sinebrychoff, who subsequently founded the Helsinki brewery that gave rise to today's renowned Koff Porter. He opened bars on the islands, and their vestiges still mark the "Nikolai" tourist route. Sinebrychoff also lived there.

This little settlement, in the Gulf of Finland, pre-dates the city of Helsinki. Today, it is a ferry ride of only15 or 20 minutes from the city's harbour. If you are lucky, you sail in a 1950s ferry that is a charming period-piece.

The linked islands are today collectively called "Finland's Castle." About 900 people live there, some commuting to jobs in Helsinki as people might from the Isle of Wight to the South Coast of England, or Staten Island to Manhattan. The islands have the Finnish Naval Academy, a dry dock working on sailing vessels - and now Suomenlinnan Panimo. The first word is the adjectival form of the islands' name in Finnish; the second means "brewery".

Many visitors to Suomenlinna simply go to see the old buildings, of which mainland Finland has few. The structures from the Swedish period have a stucco stylishness. When the Russians ruled, before Finnish independence, their architecture was more functional, in brick. They did, though, add a dab of rendering to their mid-1800s lighthouse-cum-barracks, providing today a warm suggestion of terracotta.With no garrison left, the building has now become craft studios, a gallery and the restaurant/pub/brewery.

He decided he would like to be a brewer, designed his own ten-hectolitre, full-mash, system, and had it built by a metal fabricator.

It was a resident on the island, Jussi Heikkilä, who had the idea. He previously worked on automation systems in everything from pulp mills to theatres. One day at lunch, he and a few workmates fell to considering what they might do for a living if they were not engineers. He decided he would like to be a brewer, designed his own ten-hectolitre, full-mash, system, and had it built by a metal fabricator. His partners include a former carpenter and a friend who has a "day job" selling wines and spirits.

Jussi's wife Tarja runs the restaurant, which looks like a schoolroom, but provides a better standard of food than many brewpubs. It offers sandwiches, pasta dishes and full meals, featuring typically Finnish items like salmon soup, herring tartare and lamb dumplings. The bread is baked daily, with a proportion of the brewery's crystal malt, and served hot. In summer, there is a terrace, with a barbecue. The restaurant operates seven days a week, year-round.

The beers are big and rich in texture and flavour.

Loisto ("Lighthouse"), is a golden ale of 4.6 per cent alcohol by volume, with a fruity aroma; a clean malt background; and a good, Styrian-accented, hoppy finish. An amber ale called Juhla ("Festive") was launched the celebrate the brewery's first anniversary and has stayed in the range. It was brewed with a proportion of dark crystal malt, exclusively Saaz hops, and top-fermenting yeast. For a beer of 1056 original gravity, it had a modest 5.1 per cent alcohol. In its nutty aroma; creamy head; smoothness and dry finish; it was like a bigger, maltier, version of the Belgian ale De Koninck. When I mentioned this, Juha smiled. This, he conceded, had been his intention.

The aforementioned Porter, at 1060 and 5.6 vol, had a deep mahogany to black colour; a clingy viscosity; and a dryish, palate; with rooty, sappy, charcoal-ish, flavours.

Ask for a "large" beer and it will come in a pint glass. I suggested that Jussi offer a Black Velvet made from the Stout and the Finnish Champagne-style wine made from whitecurrant, a local berry-fruit.

My most recent visit to Finland was to judge in the final round of the second Helsinki Beer festival, in the former Nokia cable factory. This year's event was attended by 14,000 people, over three days.

While my particular interest was new brews from Finland, there were also beers from the Czech Republic, Germany, Belgium, Britain and the United States.

In the blindfold judging, the category for a strong brew (more than six per cent) was open to all styles. The winner was Ayinger Celebrator Double Bock, from Bavaria. In category for top-fermenting beers of conventional strengths, there was a tie between two beers of quite different styles: Cantillon Gueuze, from Belgium; and Samuel Adams Boston Ale, from the U.S. The winning conventional lager was Kulta ("Golden") Kommodori - from Finland's PUP brewery. Best of the Year was a Sahti, the indigenous Finnish style of beer made sometimes from rye, always with juniper, and usually with baker's yeast.

The winning example, Finlandia Sahti. had a very clean, sweet, barley-malt character; a crisp hit of juniper; and some bubblegum and banana flavours from the yeast.

The winning example, Finlandia Sahti. had a very clean, sweet, barley-malt character; a crisp hit of juniper; and some bubblegum and banana flavours from the yeast. It was sweeter and less overtly junipery or woody than the famous Lammin Sahti, which was also at the festival.

Finlandia Sahti is made commercially on a farm at Matku, north of the town of Forssa, which is equidistant from Helsinki and the cities of Turku and Tampere. The farm adjoins a caravan park and horse-trekking stables. The Sahti producer, Antti Vesala, switched to brewing when his previous job as a civil engineer vanished after 17 years. Like all good Sahti-makers, he has e-mail:

The festival offered a quick tour of Finland's newer beers and where to find them:

Helsinki's well-established Kappeli brewpub, on the central Esplanade, was at the festival serving a seasonal "red" lager with a firm, fresh, maltiness. Elsewhere in the city, near the famous "church in the rock," the Helsinki Culinary School runs courses on wine and beer, and since 1995 had had its own brewery. Its beer is served at its restaurant (Perho Ravintolat, 7 Mechelinin Katu). I enjoyed its Rohkea ("brave"), another Finnish reminder of De Koninck. Another restaurant school, the Haager Institute, in Helsinki at the beginning of the road to Tampere, also has a brewery and restaurant (10 Nuijamiestentie). Its malty, textured Porter was more of a strong (5.6abv) Brown Ale.

Lahti, in malting-barley country to the north-east of Helsinki, has the Teerenpeli brewpub, with a branch restaurant in Tampere. Its products include a subtle, lightly nutty, vanilla-ish, lingonberry beer, called Lysti. A bottle-conditioned version of this is being made under licence by the Proef brewery, in Belgium.

Liperi, near Joensuu, is in the province of Karelia, bordering on the Russian Federation. The Northern Karelian Brewery (Pohjois-Karjalan Panimo) is in the precincts of a farm attached to the agriculturally-oriented university of the region. The brewery specialises in organic beers. Its Maahinen ("Troll"), at 6.1 abv, is a golden ale with full, fruity flavours that could well be Belgian.

Lohja, about 40 miles west of Helsinki, has the Undenmaan brewery, in a former dairy. One of its beers features the local calcium-carbonate water in its name: Kalkki-Pitteri. With notes both of salt and black chocolate, and an alcohol content of 4.9, this reminded me of a strong Mild or modest Old Ale. A yet more unusual brew of a similar strength and style is Salmiakki Olut. This is named after the salty-tasting licorice, flavoured with ammonum chloride, that is popular in Finland and some other northern countries. In beer, this candy imparts a distinct Fishermen's Friends or Victory-V character.

Mustiala, between Forssa and Hameenlinna, has an adult education institute where the courses include brewing. It commercially produces a Saaz-accented golden lager called Renke ("farm-hand"). The brewery name is Kuninkaan Kartanon.

Seinajški, a railway-junction town near Vaasa, on the west coast, now has the Mallaskoski brewery tap. The original brewery dating from 1921, closed in 1963, but the enterprise has been, revived. Its Tumma ('dark') lager is clean and dry, with a crystal malt character.

Tampere's Plevna brewpub is now making a wide range of excellent beers after a hesitant start. Its Bitter, for example, has a teasing interplay of smooth maltiness, late fruitiness and cleansing, hoppy, acidity.

Turku drinking spots were also discussed in my writings in 1995, but the city has since gained a brewpub in a turn-of-the-century school. This is known by the Finnish word for school, Koulo. At the festival, it offered a creamy, textured, beautifully balanced, Dark Lager called Maisteri ("Master," as at school); a peachily malty bronze Bock, known as Reksi ("Rector," or headmaster); and a brew identified as Vehna ('Wheat"), with all the cloviness of a Bavarian Weizen. In the same city, the newer Herman is an ˆ la carte restaurant with its own brewery. I particularly enjoyed a dryish but creamy Herman Dunkles, a dark lager made with a Slovak yeast.

Published Online: AUG 14, 1999
Published in Print: JUNE 1, 1999
In: What's Brewing

Brew Travel - Beer Review - Beer Event Reviews

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