Tallinn, Estonia’s capital, is an odd mix of old wooden houses, Soviet-era Stalinist buildings, and gleaming modern glass-and-steel facades, all dominated by the medieval walled town. The city is popular with tourists, many of whom come by ferry from Stockholm or Helsinki.
When it comes to beer, Tallinn looks at first like any modern European capital: mostly pale lager, but with a lively craft scene when you know where to look. But there’s more to it than that. Hidden away in a cellar lies the beer bar Põrgu, which serves the latest IPAs, Baltic porters, and more, but it also serves koduõlu—the national beer style.
Although koduõlu is a farmhouse-ale style, there are two commercial breweries that produce it, and either one can often be found at Põrgu. Just order Pihtla, and you’ll get one of them—no, really! Both breweries sell their beers under that name because it’s the name of the village where both are located roughly 50 meters apart.
In the glass, koduõlu—pronounced kah-DOO-uh-loo—is hazy and usually opaque pale yellow, sometimes tending brownish. It has little carbonation, like every other traditional farmhouse ale. It tends to be sweetish, full-bodied, and juicy, with a fairly full mouthfeel, finishing with faintly bitter juniper notes. Above it all floats the signature green, straw-like, umami raw-ale flavors, as does the strong banana-like aroma from the baking yeast the brewers typically use. It’s about 6 to 8 percent ABV.
Since koduõlu is a farmhouse ale, Tallinn is not the best place to experience it. For that you need to drive a couple of hours southwest, through a flat landscape of forests, grain fields, and lakes, then take the ferry out to the great islands. In summer, it’s a beautiful trip across the glittering blue-green waters of the Baltic Sea, while your destination ahead is a low, dark-green band on the horizon.
The koduõlu brewers are homebrewers, like all true farmhouse brewers. They live spread out in little villages across the three islands of Muhu, Saaremaa, and Hiiumaa. I went there in the summer of 2016 to see for myself.
The Estonian Island Beer
Estonians see koduõlu as characteristic of the culture of the islands, and the islanders themselves very much agree. “In the old days, any holiday must always start with smoking fish and brewing beer,” one brewer there tells us. “Once those were ready, the holiday could start. Smoked fish and koduõlu—that’s the Saaremaa way of life.”
On Meelis Sepp’s farm in Kõrkküla, we park in front of a stone fence topped with the skulls of cows. Sepp himself is a broad, taciturn man in his 50s with a shrewd, cautious look. He speaks no English, so we’ve brought an interpreter.
Sepp learned to brew from his father and still brews exactly the same way. He grows his own barley, malting it himself on the floor of an outbuilding next to the barley field. There is a fireplace with a smoke channel beneath the floor, so the malt is gently heated, which makes for very pale beer. (Historically, people on the islands dried their malt in the sun, on cloth or old sails.)
The centerpiece of his brew kit is a wooden lauter tun in the old Baltic style: like a barrel with the top sawed off. There’s a hole in the bottom, which can be opened and closed with a long wooden pole that rises above the top of the vessel. The lauter tun stands on a custom-made stool, so you can get a bucket underneath to collect the wort.
Sepp does a single-infusion mash, then lauters through juniper branches and hop cones. He uses 80 kilos of malt for 200 liters of beer—or roughly 176 pounds for 53 gallons—and a “football-sized bundle” of hops. As this is a raw ale, the wort is never boiled; after lautering, he cools the wort to 28–34°C (82–93°F) and pitches the yeast. It ferments 24 hours before he racks it, and then he waits two or three days before drinking.
The koduõlu brewers usually buy European Noble hops, but some still have hops growing in their gardens. On neighboring Hiiumaa island, Paavo Pruul shows us climbing hop bines all along one end of his grandfather’s garden. We ask whether it was a lot of work to tend this many hop plants, and he just laughs. He says he has to pull up some of them now and then, so they don’t overwhelm the garden, but beyond that, he does nothing to them.
The hops in koduõlu are mainly to prevent it from souring and add little to the flavor. The bitterness is not that important because the raw character of the beer adds some balancing abrasiveness. The brewers always boil the hops in water to make a hop tea, then pour that into the wort.
A Lost Element
Sepp serves us his beer from a blue plastic bucket on a table, ladling it out with an old enamel mug with typical Soviet floral patterns. The beer is amazingly drinkable: light, fluffy mouthfeel; sweetish but balanced by a light, delicate acidity; dusty hay and straw notes, followed by earthy peas and fruity gooseberry yeast character.
Our tour around the island includes many brewers, but this is probably the best beer among them. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s because he makes his own malt.
As we taste the beer and talk, we’re interrupted by shouting from the back. Turning, we see Sepp’s old father sitting on a chair, listening to the conversation. “The most important thing is to have good yeast,” he shouts. Asking more about this, we find that the Sepp family had their own heirloom yeast until the early 1990s. However, after Estonia became independent, baking yeast was reliably available, so everyone switched to that.
Asking around, we learn that there might be someone in the village Lümanda who still has the traditional yeast. So we look into it—and there have been several other attempts to find brewers still reusing old yeast—but no luck. Had we come 15 years earlier, we might have saved the Estonian equivalent of kveik. Now it seems to be too late.
Generally, the brewers use much the same brewing methods across all the three major islands. One of them, Paavo Pruul, adds sweet gale, also known as bog myrtle, a marsh plant that has been used in farmhouse brewing for millennia, and which was once part of the gruit beers of the Low Countries (see “Special Ingredient: Bog Myrtle,” beerandbrewing.com). He says his grandfather used it, and in old archive documents, quite a few Estonian brewers say the same. In fact, in my data, no country in Europe has a higher reported usage of gale than Estonia (about 1 in 4 brewers).
That’s not the only way that Estonia seems to have preserved very old beer traditions.
Koduõlu literally means “home beer,” and today it has come to be the name for the farmhouse ale of the Estonian Baltic islands. Some decades ago, however, it meant any Estonian farmhouse ale, no matter how it was made.
Archive documents suggest that as late as 1940, virtually every farm in Estonia was brewing its own beer. Estonia must be the only country in Europe where farmhouse brewing was almost universal so late, but Soviet occupation from 1940 to 1991 killed brewing on the mainland. The islands were remote and isolated enough that the brewing survived out there.
One thing that shows up in the old documents is that stone brewing was surprisingly common in Estonia. It was related to the Austrian steinbier, in that the fire-heated stones were used in the mash, but the Estonians had an extra trick: Some brewers sprinkled rye flour on the hot stones before dropping them in the mash, for extra color and flavor. I've seen this in videos; the flour catches fire instantly, the flames leaping out from the stone briefly, then dying down.
The main way to brew on the mainland, however, was using a great Russian oven, much like the Lithuanian keptinis brewers do. The reason the islanders don’t do that seems to be that the great oven never made it to the islands.
The Tradition Lives
Despite the ravages of Communism and modernity, koduõlu brewing seems safely established on the islands. There are a large number of farmhouse brewers plus a few brewpubs, in addition to the two Pihtla commercial brewers. The islands are developing a tourism industry, and more of the farmhouse brewers are thinking of going commercial.
One thing that surprised us on that 2016 tour was how lovely the islands were. At several places, we stayed in beautiful old wooden farm buildings, converted into modern holiday houses beneath thatched straw roofs. An old aristocratic manor housed a Michelin- starred restaurant. The beaches looked lovely, as did the medieval fortress town of Kuressaare. While koduõlu may be difficult to buy commercially, you could certainly find worse destinations for beer tourism.