Where to Drink in Tallinn, Estonia

Destinations by | Nov 2015 | Issue #106
Illustrations by Sam Brewster

A hundred years ago, Estonia’s beer production flourished at every farmstead, with special brews for holidays and family events. But the ravages of the monochrome Soviet years and the later onslaught of mediocre multinationals left around 90 percent of the country’s beer production in the hands of two foreign-owned conglomerates. These days, the industry—like the country itself—is seeing a renaissance, with the arrival of craft breweries heralding a new awakening for both traditional and more modern beer styles.

A casual visitor to Tallinn’s spectacular medieval Old Town might get the impression that there are only two breweries in Estonia, Saku and A. Le Coq, which were founded in the 1800s and still hold the vast majority of market share. A. Le Coq originated as a business set up by descendants of French Huguenots, selling Stouts and Porters to Russia. However, both breweries are now small parts of large international companies, and most consider their popular beers decidedly mediocre.

Luckily, you don’t have to go far to discover a pub brewing its own ales and lagers or a local producer from the burgeoning beer scene. In 2011, Põhjala Brewery was one of the first to jumpstart the city’s local brewing movement. Head brewer Chris Pilkington learned his craft at Scotland’s BrewDog. Expect a strong core range—like an IPA made with American hops called Virmalised, meaning “Aurora Borealis,” and Öö, meaning “night,” a highly rated Baltic Porter. They also brew seasonal and short-run specials, such as Baltic Notorious IPA3, produced at Põhjala with the brewmaster from Oregon’s Boneyard Beer.

And the number of Estonian beers continues to grow. Bottles from the local brewery Õllenaut hit shelves in 2013. Starting off as a homebrewer, Õllenaut’s founder prides himself on using as many Estonian ingredients as possible. Also started by successful homebrewers, Lehe is a microbrewery founded in 2013 that crafts its filtered beers exclusively with malt, hops, yeast and water.

Since the craft brewing scene in Tallinn is still young, many brewers work on a contract basis, renting space at more established facilities. Popular gypsy brewers include Tanker Brewery, Vaat and Hampelmann. Hopheads also seek out beers from Pühaste Brewery, which is known for Nokturn, an Imperial Black IPA, and Mosaiik, a West Coast-style IPA.

Tallinn’s beer scene is developing fast, with new brewers and experimental beers arriving so frequently it is difficult to keep up. Happily, this makes stumbling on fantastic finds more likely for those who know where to look. Most tourists gravitate toward the Old Town, where hosts in medieval garb will tempt them onto the terraces where, typically, the views are great, but the beers are not. Venturing out of the tourist heart of the city rewards visitors with access to better brews, and the chance to see and taste more of the real Tallinn.

106Destinations2Surrounded by cobbled streets and the warm red rooftops of the medieval Old Town, beer restaurant Hopner is close to all of the action in Town Hall Square. But unlike the tourist traps, here travelers will find 12 taps and more than 200 bottles that pair with a rotating à la carte menu. Wander the winding roads adjacent to Town Hall Square, and you’ll soon stumble upon Brewery, with its classic pub food and range of house brewed beers, like Honey Ale and Pilsner, and Manna la Roosa [mannalaroosa.com], a cocktail and beer bar occupying a clapboard house near the Viru Gates. Pop in for a light or dark house beer brewed by Vormsi Olu, and stay for the fascinating decor, where Russian orthodox iconography shares space with street art, anarchist posters, fake flowers, Indian wall hangings and even vintage glamour photos.

Try gastropub Clayhills [clayhills.ee/en] for dishes like pumpkin soup made with fresh, seasonal ingredients, live music Thursday through Sunday nights, and a range of local and international beers, from Sweden’s Gotland brewery to local options from Lehe and Vormsi.

If you want a challenge, seek out the fantastic Koht. Only a minute or two away from Town Hall Square, look for the sign reading, “Place is open, if it is not closed.” A visit is like sitting in a well-stocked living room, with hundreds of bottled beers to choose between. Try Miss Haizon, a Saison from Estonian brewery Kalamaja Pruulikoda, or Õllenaut’s Livonia Hele Eksport.

A short walk from the Old Town center, Drink Bar and Grill is popular with locals, expats and tourists alike, offering food alongside draft and bottled beers from across the globe as well as new bottles from local microbrewer Veldi & Daughters. Next, head down to Porgu. Meaning “hell” in Estonian, this cellar bar near picturesque St. Nicholas’ Church offers a changing range of 15 draft beers, including several house beers, and ciders, plus a bottle list representing the major local craft brewers.

The last stop in medieval Old Town, Hell Hunt has been around since 1993 and offers house brews in addition to local and seasonal choices, plus imports from Belgium and the US. On weekends, when it often hosts rock bands, the pub is crowded with local youth and tourists.

Telliskivi is only a couple of stops by tram from the city center, but this partly converted factory complex housing bars, restaurants, start-ups and stores could not be less traditional. Come here to feel the energy driving Tallinn’s cultural, economic and brewing revival. Pop into SIP bottleshop [sip.ee] to browse shelves and wooden pallets stocked with the best of local and regional microbrewers, and, for a small corkage charge, linger in their cosy seating area for a drink or two should you wish.

At Pudel, sit on the terrace and try any of their dozen or so rotating draft choices, which introduce guests to brewers of Northern Europe, from Mikkeller to BrewDog. Then, on your way back into town, stop in at Speakeasy [speakeasy.ee], Põhjala Brewery’s taproom, which offers four drafts and a variety of bottles, including guest breweries like Norway’s Lervig. Like any good speakeasy, this one is hidden, tucked away in an unassuming row of shops with only the smallest of signs on the door. If it’s late and you’re peckish, place an order for kimchee fries or falafel at the burger bar next door. When ready, a server will pass food through the cleverly positioned hole in the wall, right to your seat by the plywood bar. Now that’s something that the mock medieval bars in the town center can’t offer.