Rukkirääkin’ in the Free World: Estonian Craft Beer Explodes

Just two years ago, Estonia was drowning in a sea of commercial lagers. But in 2013, Põhjala Brewery introduced what many consider to be the country's first craft beer, inspiring not only a remodel of its capital city's drinking scene, but a boom of new local breweries.

As the hubbub around “new Nordic” cuisine continues to percolate, food and drink culture in Estonia—an essentially Nordic country that shares rich maritime resources with Scandinavia—has remained largely overlooked. That is, until now.

At the center of the country’s emerging culinary scene is the restaurant Leib Resto Ja Aed, located on the edge of Tallinn’s Old Town, one of the best-preserved medieval cities in Europe, where you can eat piles of snowy herring roe with rowanberry schnapps among 14th-century burghers’ houses. Leib co-owner Kristjan Peäske oversees the capital city’s best wine list, but his obsessively local menu has recently been amended to include a “Beer and Food” section, featuring everything from pan-fried Baltic Sea pikeperch to Estonian beef fillet alongside the country’s own craft beers—the kind of local-on-local pairings that would have been nearly impossible to find just two years ago.

Estonia is the fourth largest per-capita beer-consuming country in the world—behind the Czech Republic, Austria and Germany—but 90 percent of the market has been comprised of a few foreign-owned domestic brewers: Saku (owned by Denmark’s Carlsberg), A. Le Coq (Finland’s Olvi) and Viru Õlu (Denmark’s Harboes), all of which primarily produce pale, similar-tasting lagers. And while there is a long tradition of home brewing (like the Finnish, Estonians make sahti, an ancient, un-boiled beer fermented in wooden troughs with juniper twigs), until very recently, there’s been no real craft beer scene.

But in January 2013, the brand-new Tallinn-based Põhjala Brewery introduced what many consider to be the country’s first craft beer, going for broke with a 10.5 percent ABV porter called Öö (Night). Whatever the reason—local pride, love of intense flavors, shortcut to a buzz or the beer’s sheer deliciousness—it was as if a dam had burst open. “It was four times as costly [as mainstream beer],” says Gren Noormets, one of the owners of Põhjala, “but people understood it right away.”

The brewery achieved its three-year expansion goal within four months of Öö’s release, built its own facility in April 2014 and has inspired dozens of newly registered Estonian brewers—many of whom had been homebrewing for years—resulting in a dynamic craft beer scene built nearly overnight.

The excitement around Estonian beer has given birth to a rash of local craft beer bars and shops, both new places and older ones shifting focus. In Old Town and nearby you’ll find Hell Hunt, Koht, Põrgu or Põhjala’s own Speakeasy. But the energy is really in Telliskivi Creative City, just a short walk from Old Town, which, with its rehabbed offices and retail space for forward-thinking businesses, feels like the promise of 1990s Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

In a sense, it’s surprising it took so long. While Estonia only regained independence in 1991 with the collapse of the U.S.S.R., it’s a technologically advanced country (online voting since 2005!) with a healthy economy and a modern-minded U.S.-born president, Toomas Hendrik Ilves. (A president who referenced The Clash in a keynote speech for Tallinn Music Week—one of the continent’s fastest-growing music conferences—about how music should stay anti-authoritarian and never be in service to the state.)

“Estonia is a place where a lot of things got a blank sheet to start over in 1991; Estonians don’t really care for the mainstream, and people embrace progress and innovation,” says Markus Hausammann of Vaat Brewery, a gypsy brewer currently using Belgium’s De Proefbrouwerij facility, where Denmark’s acclaimed Mikkeller and To Øl also brew. “Entrepreneurship is widespread and many Estonians have their own company, even if they’re working a full-time job or two.”

Befitting the country’s independent spirit, every craft brewer’s approach is different. Õllenaut is perhaps the most patriotic of Estonian brewers, using all-Estonian ingredients, from the water to foraged hops and rye malts typically used for breadmaking. “Most beers can be brewed anywhere in the world, so to make Estonian beer unique we have to use something of our own,” says Õllenaut partner Urmas Roots.

Pühaste, meanwhile, expresses its singularity by proudly scouring the globe for the hard-to-find and often-pricey hops used in their intensely flavored beers, while Lehe has bucked the high-alcohol trend with its Little India pale ale, which clocks in at just 2.7 percent ABV.

The open and diverse nature of Estonia’s new brewing scene has even attracted breweries relocating from surrounding countries with both more competition and stricter laws concerning the sale of beer.

In Finland, for example, beers above 4.7 percent ABV must be sold in state-run liquor stores that keep limited hours. Strict brewery regulations and the inability to sell on-site or online make the beautiful two-hour ferry ride from Helsinki to Tallinn seem even more tempting. “Finnish brewers are like painters who are only given black and white,” says Heikki Uotila, one-half, along with Pyry Hurula, of Sori Brewing, which established a permanent facility in Estonia in late 2014.

“Our original plan was just to say ‘fuck you’ to the Finnish government, make great beer here and sell it back to Finland,” says Hurula in his brewery, which is now located in an old Soviet weapons factory on the outskirts of Tallinn. “But now the market is better in Estonia than Finland, so we’ve grown fast and created not just beer, but a solution to a problem.”

The excitement around Estonian beer has given birth to a rash of local craft beer bars and shops, both new places and older ones shifting focus. In Old Town and nearby you’ll find Hell Hunt, Koht, Põrgu or Põhjala’s own Speakeasy. But the energy is really in Telliskivi Creative City, just a short walk from Old Town, which, with its rehabbed offices and retail space for forward-thinking businesses, feels like the promise of 1990s Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

The entrance to Pudel, one of the area’s most popular bars, reads “Sakuvaba tsoon” (Saku-free zone)—a reference to the Carlsberg-owned commercial brew with a strong presence in Tallinn. Located inside a converted factory building, the good-looking crowd (Estonia purportedly has the most working models per-capita) sips from dozens of locally brewed options; just down the road at Sip, a retail shop and bar, you’ll find locals purchasing beer for takeaway—or to drink at the checkout counter—from a selection consisting almost entirely of local brands, with colorful labels and tongue-twisting names like Vormsi, NanoPruul, Raba Pruulikoda, Pöide and Hampelmann. Even the souvenir shop at the Tallinn airport sells Õllenaut and Lehe beers alongside elk sausage, sea buckthorn berry jam, colorful felt hats and juniper wood butter knives.

In Estonia’s continued efforts to share its vast natural and human resources with the world, beer might prove to be a potent ambassador. Last month, Põhjala threw the first annual Tallinn Craft Beer Weekend, during which hundreds of beer enthusiasts descended on a Telliskivi warehouse to taste dozens of local and international craft beers. As a joke, someone had set up a crude lemonade stand advertising “Tallinn Crap Beer Weekend” and was attempting to pass out plastic cups of commercial lager to the line of people snaking down the block.

No takers.

Tagged: beer, craft beer, estonia

Nils Bernstein is a food and drink writer and music publicist based in New York City. He's written for Bon Appetit, Men's Journal, Wine Enthusiast, T Magazine, and more.