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Baltic Brewing: In Estonia, a Farmhouse Tradition Survives

Feature by | Oct 2016 | Issue #117
Photos by Martin Thibault

True farmhouse ale is still alive. It’s just not where you think it is. All those charming narratives of men growing barley, malting it themselves and brewing a beer for their family, their helping farmhands, and their daughters’ weddings now mostly just appear on brewery websites. You would be hard pressed to find more than a handful of examples today that harken back to these heralded stories of yore. Well, except if you go to Estonia. In fact, seeking out the refreshingly rustic brew known as Koduõlu on the westerly islands of Saaremaa, Hiiumaa, and Muhu might even have you shooting the island breeze with brewing farmers until their cows come home.

Faraway, So Close
The island of Saaremaa is renowned in Estonia for being a stronghold of local traditions. Separated from the mainland via a 75-minute ferry ride to neighboring Muhu island, itself a 2-hour car trip from the capital city of Tallinn, Saaremaa becomes quite sleepy once vacationers and foreign hunters leave in the fall. Such conditions are perfect for preserving a timeless brewing culture.

In the hamlet of Kõrkküla, Meelis Sepp grows his own barley, malts it in a barn near his crops, and uses his spring and fall yield to brew a Koduõlu in wooden vessels that once belonged to his 90-year-old father. His beer is strong and lush, ripe with banana esters, fluffy natural carbonation, and vivifying juniper branch greenness. But even though he brews close to 200 liters at a time, his beer is reserved for friends and family, usually around Midsummer Day (June 23 or 24) and Christmas. In this part of the world, traditional homestead ale symbolizes a deeper connection to local values.

Across Soela Strait, on the island of Hiiumaa, Paavo Pruul says his family stopped making malt because it’s much more difficult than brewing. This 16th generation brewer, whose family name happens to translate to “Brew,” modestly points out that “everyone can carry [or manipulate] liquids.” That’s why he brews but doesn’t want to be involved in the tedious seven-to-10-day malting process. Yet anyone observing his equipment and practices would surely define him as an authentic Koduõlu brewer. His mash tun and fermentors are all wood barrels that are older than his own grandfather. He even uses a handmade, electrified stone malt mill from the WWII era, as well as a carved-out log to catch the run-off from his weathered wooden lautering tun. His brewhouse is a veritable farmhouse museum piece.

Other brewers on the island, like Kaido Lõppe, a bread factory mechanic from the village of Partsi, cannot use wood anymore. But Lõppe’s practices don’t fly in the face of tradition. Wooden vessels, as is common knowledge there, need time to dry between batches. Lõppe brews too often to let that happen and thus needs more modern equipment to avoid mold growth. He may have learned the trade from his aunt and his father, but demand for his wonderfully aromatic Koduõlu has been too high for him to follow the old methods. Yet even for many in the know, this idiosyncratic beer is nearly impossible to find.

117featureestonia2

Pihtla Õlu’s farmhouse ale is one of the only Koduõlu-style beers to be found in Estonia’s capital of Tallinn.

Fishing for Clues
Only one brewery on the islands is willing to sell its wares to many accounts, in bottles and in kegs: Taako OÜ, makers of Pihtla Õlu. Their Taluõlu, which translates to “farmhouse beer,” even makes it to a few purveyors in Tallinn and, as such, is the first example most travelers can get acquainted with. Like all Koduõlu, it’s an ever-changing beer. Rich with banana esters, freshened by the greenness of juniper branches, tickled by quiet natural carbonation, and licked by alcohol warmth, Pihtla’s beer is a beacon of the islands’ traditional style. The brewery even has a taproom, called Mekituba, deep within the forests of Saaremaa, where visitors can taste fresh Koduõlu alongside a few more modern styles.

Others, like Tihemetsa Talu, a smokehouse just outside Kuressaare, make it a bit more challenging to try Koduõlu. Their traditional beer is not advertised anywhere on their building or website, but it is available if a meal is booked ahead of time. Pitcher after pitcher of the strong, fruity ale will be served with the various fish and vegetable dishes made in the small kitchen behind the rustic dining room. The banana and apple fruitiness of this Koduõlu, served with tons of foam, somewhat recall a Heller Weizenbock, though much less carbonated.

To push a quest for Estonian farmhouse beer any further requires fishing for clues. Note that none of those stories of sweating workers in the field drinking Saison ever included brand names or a pub with a tap dedicated to the local brewery. These were beers reserved for the farm where they were brewed. The same goes for Koduõlu. So to reel these beers in today, you must find a way to get invited to a farmer’s household. At the right time of year. By a farmer who usually speaks Estonian. And perhaps a bit of Russian.

Taste, Texture, and Variety
If you’re used to drinking unblended Lambic and are not offended by its otherworldliness, you should be able to handle the cleaner farmhouse beer of the Estonian islands. Although it must be said that Koduõlu’s flavor profile still requires an open mind, as there’s nothing really like it in the Western world.

Texture-wise, the barley proteins and bread yeast dominate, sculpting a rich, almost milky-thick mouthfeel emboldened by suave alcohol. Moreover, natural carbonation is as low as a proper pint of British real ale. This raw ale fragility requires particular care; Arvet Väli of Pihtla Õlu gives his beer a two-week shelf life once it has left his brewery—a short time frame which should be spent in a cold fridge, not a cellar.

When visiting with farmers, though, older Koduõlu can be tasted, mostly because brewers keep it cold at all times. Aarne Trei, a 73-old brewer who owns greenhouses for growing flowers, can keep his brew a few weeks more since he doesn’t sell it to shops and restaurants. A month-old batch tasted at his countryside homestead was a refined banana cake, laced in alcohol warmth much like a Belgian-style Tripel.

A few villages over, still on Saaremaa, a grain and seed farmer by the name of Andres Kurgpõld has a beer that has won him local championships. His version showcases a bit more of a hard water character, which somehow melds the greenness of juniper branches and the browned banana character from the bread yeast. Since people from the Estonian islands stopped keeping a live yeast culture at home as soon as packaged yeast started appearing in the shops after the fall of Communism, plain bread yeast, easily bought in packets, is now nearly omnipresent in the world of Koduõlu. And even though it might not sound as charming as a native yeast like the kveik from Norway’s Voss region, the bread yeast the Estonians use still imparts a characterful fruitiness that goes hand-in-hand with the woodsy juniper branches that fill their wooden lautering tuns.

Steps from the harbor of Sõru linking Saaremaa and Hiiumaa, Paavo Pruul still brews Taherberi, a small beer made from the second runnings of Koduõlu. He adds a bit of sugar to the lighter wort and flavors the yeast starter by crushing black currant leaves into it just like his grandfather did. The results are beautifully fragrant and quenching. Juniper is obviously prevalent in this recipe as well. As his grandfather explains, juniper used to be “as cheap as stones on these islands,” because it grows almost everywhere. “But now you have to pay… for stones,” he adds, as rare insect species live under some and are protected.

While Koduõlu usually ranges from 6 to 9 percent alcohol by volume, Taherberi skirts the 3 percent mark. Taari, on the other hand, barely contains any alcohol. This third beer made from the same grist is brewed with soured spent grain left sitting for a short period of time. Meelis Mereäär, a museum curator on the island of Muhu, describes his grandfather’s Taari as mellow and tart. Contrary to the craft brewing world’s newfound admiration for these flavors, this acidic brew has fallen out of favor on the islands.

Meelis Sepp in front of the barn where he malts his barley to brew Koduõlu.

Meelis Sepp in front of the barn where he malts his barley to brew Koduõlu.

A Well-Groomed Lineage
Every traditional brewer on these islands seems to have learned from ancestors. Aarne Trei began as a small boy at his grandparents’ place. Andres Kurgpõld’s grandmother taught him how to keep the yeast in the well when he was 15. Lili Käär in Kärdla learned from her father and has since taught her son. Juri Sklennink, a champion brewer from Aste, was taught by his grandmother and a neighbor. Paavo Pruul has been brewing for himself since he was 19. Of course during his childhood he had also helped his grandfather cool the Taherberi down in the well.

Life was far from a beach for these island brewers during the Soviet era, and help from the family was essential. Marooned on their remote farms, islanders often only saw one shipment of commercial beer from the mainland every Friday. It usually sold out the following day. So they learned to manage and their brewing traditions survived at a time when most homestead traditions in Europe fell prey to industrialization’s plethora of practical products. Even if they weren’t official family members, neighbors learned to observe chimney smoke and came over to “borrow a ladder” when Koduõlu seemed to be in the works. Soon enough, strips of smoked flounder appeared, served fresh out of the freezer for that splash of cool saltiness, the perfect accompaniment to the juniper-laden froth poured into a communal 2-liter wooden mug called an õllekapp.

Times may have changed for the better, though, as a wind of legislative change has encouraged the opening of many smaller breweries in Estonia. Hiiu Õlle Koda, located in the Kassari Resort on Hiiumaa, is one of those upstarts. This plucky brewpub even chose to bridge the gap between craft beer and homestead ale. Whether their Koduõlu’s refinement is a testament to the brewer’s talent, or his more technological ways, is not clear. But this new venture may provide a glimpse into Koduõlu’s future. Someday soon, time-tested teachings might fully embrace modernity and take this island brew beyond the private confines of individual farms, ensuring the longevity of an overlooked style.

Paavo Pruul pours the mash over juniper branches in the lautering tun while brewing Koduõlu.

Paavo Pruul pours the mash over juniper branches in the lautering tun while brewing Koduõlu.

How to Make Koduõlu
Although various interpretations and techniques can be found on Saaremaa, Hiiumaa, and Muhu, the island recipes share striking similarities. Here brewers rely on empirical perceptions and the teachings of forefathers rather than refractometers. One brewer, for example, explained that he knew his malt to water ratio was good when the mash paddle could stand by itself in the mash tun for about a second before falling over. This recipe, compiled from a dozen or so interviews, aims for a common ground.

Even though some farmers malt their own barley, most simply buy German or Czech pale malts. A few pointed out that 50 kilos of malt (110 pounds) would yield about 150 liters (40 gallons) of beer.

A 4-hour mash of 100 percent pale barley malt seems to be the norm and sugar is sometimes added, but few mention it.
Mash temperatures range from 67 – 72°C (152 – 162°F); step mashing is rare. Don’t boil—this is a raw ale.

While mashing, make a simple hop tea separately and boil it for 60 – 90 minutes. It can be added during the mash or right before lautering. The hops are mainly intended as a preservative, so whether you use Cascade, Perle, or wild hops doesn’t matter much. Aim for a low level of bitterness around 10 IBU. The perceived IBU value is closer to 15 – 20 due to the use of juniper.

The bottom of the lautering tun is filled about 1/3 of the way with green (young) juniper branches, with or without berries. A juniper infusion is also sometimes used as sparge water.

Fermenting is done with bread yeast, usually at high temperatures, but this is where the most variability was recorded. While some versions of Koduõlu fermented as high as 34° Celsius (93°F), a few preferred the 18 – 21°C (64 – 70°F) range. Many become superstitious at this point and shout “Mine ja murra!” (“Go and get ’em!”) when pitching the yeast. Some families, on the other hand, prefer to whisper their words of motivation.

Banana esters should be clean and fragrant when fermentation is complete (within 1 – 3 days).

The resulting 6 – 9 percent ABV brew must be kept cold immediately and is often drunk days after fermentation is done. Since the wort is not boiled, the entire batch must be consumed very fresh. 

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