Locally produced craft beer trend out of the bottle (4)

Beers brewed by Põhjala, one pioneer. (Scott Abel/ERR)
8/6/2014 2:10 PM
Category: Features

With temperatures soaring in Estonia over the last few weeks, beer drinkers have several dozen domestic hand-crafted choices available that won't break the bank - or, given that they generally come in 33 cl bottles, necessarily lead to overindulgence.

Even some nationwide retail chains carry some of about 25 domestic, typically heavily hopped craft beers, which were practically non-existent just two years ago.

It all began to change when guest brewers connected to the Danish high-end brewery Mikkeller brewed a custom beer for the Estonian market, called Baltic Frontier. Then one local brewer in particular, Põhjala, blazed a trail for other Estonian microbrewers - Lehe, Koeru, Õllenaut, Tanker - to follow. Producers like Pihtla on Saaremaa Island have also contributed with their more draft-oriented traditional koduõlu (home-brewed beer) approach.

The change has happened so fast that sites like europeanbeerguide.com have not yet updated their country profile for Estonia. But ratebeer.com's rankings show that nine of the 10 best-scoring beers from Estonia are craft beers.

The boom is unusual as it isn't directly linked to any changes in legislation, as has often been the case in other countries.

It's not just a hipster phenomenon. In a market that has long favored lager sold in pint bottles, even supermarkets outside Tallinn and Tartu have added a few 33 cl domestic craft beers to their shelves, alongside the ubiquitous English ales and other imports.

And mainstream market co-leader Saku, which for the previous five years introduced beers named after European cities approximating the local styles of beer in each ("Dublin" was a dark stout), recently rolled out two 33 cl bottom-fermented beers that imitate the craft look and taste. (To its credit, Saku also has the one non-craft beer in ratebeer.com's top 10.)

The widest selection is found in specialty shops, such as one on Lai street in Tallinn Old Town attached to Koht bar in Tallinn Old Town, Drink Shop (also in the Old Town), and in Tartu, Gambrinus, but new ones are opening up all the time. Earlier in the summer, a second shop was preparing to open in Tartu close to the university library.

Kelly Sülla, who works at Drink Shop, said that among local Estonian drinkers, the most popular beer is called Virmalised (Northern Lights), an India pale ale released last year by Põhjala Brewery, which blazed the trail for others to follow.

"It's so popular right now that we can't keep it on the shelves," Sülla said on Tuesday, sticking her hand in the empty spot on the store shelf where the beer usually resides.

Most locally brewed varieties range 2-3 euros in price, compared to the 4-plus euros an import will cost.

However, foreign-brewed beers are also expanding their local reach. Sülla said that they have recently started carrying a larger variety of international products that are developing a following. Drink Shop now stocks a variety of Japanese imports, some of which that are so new that they were awaiting their first buyer.

One popular Japanese craft beer has already found a niche audience she said, a Belgian white called "Suiyoubi", which is popular because of the large white cat on its label, which bares a resemblance to the large white cat of "Hello Kitty" fame.

Also popular are Italian labels, Sülla said, including a chocolate stout called Spaghetti Western, and an IPA named Space Man, produced by Brewfist.


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