Hopping Around: Estonia

It only seems like yesterday that I wrote my letter stepping down as editor of Beer Matters but here I am having spent the last few weeks in Estonia with Poppy, making a great start to our journey through Europe. In Estonia we have discovered a country with a burgeoning craft beer scene, from macro-breweries trying their hand at more niche beers to the new kids on the block creating some really interesting experimental styles.

We flew into Riga in Latvia (the flights were much more reasonable than going directly to Estonia) and spent a couple of days there acclimatising to the more relaxed travelling way of life before getting the coach up to Pärnu in Estonia. A beach resort known as Estonia’s “summer capital”, Pärnu was quiet in late April but its streets are lined with restaurants, cafes and bars. Most of these served the big Estonian brand-name lagers such as A. Le Coq and Saku, but some had a selection of Belgian beers in bottles too.

The main attraction for beer lovers in the town was undoubtedly a little bottle shop called Õllepood Nr.2 Gambrinus, which looks unassuming from the outside but within stocked well over 300 Estonian beers as well as a (yes, one) table where you could sit and sample them. We left the shop with a few breweries to look out for on the rest of our trip: I was really impressed with Pühaste who had a good range of all styles, while Poppy was a big fan of Sori Brewing and their milkshake DIPAs.

Having made a full recovery, we headed off to the ferry to spend a few days exploring Saaremaa, Estonia’s largest island (about the size of Luxembourg apparently). We stayed in the island’s main town, Kuressaare, which allegedly has a population of 14,000 – they must have been hiding while we were there as the place was deserted! We had hoped to spend one of our days on the island visiting a local brewery, Pihtla, who specialise in a beer style called taluõlu (Estonian for “farmstead beer”), not dissimilar from the Belgian saison.

Sampling some local beers in my trusty Beer Central glass

Unfortunately, we discovered the brewery only opens to visitors during the summer months so we couldn’t go, but luckily we found a place just around the corner from our apartment called Saaremaa Veski that sold their beers. I tried their Pihtla Õlu (7.6%) and was pretty impressed. It had the yeasty flavour you might expect from a farmhouse-style ale but apparently the beer is bittered using juniper rather than hops, which gives it an interesting twist. It was also very obviously unfiltered and unfined – I think back home they would call this a real ale!

We tried out a couple more of the bars in Kuressaare, but actually the place with the largest selection of local craft beer was the Coop supermarket – they had Pihtla and another Saaremaa brewery, Pöide, as well as beers from the neighbouring islands of Muhu and Vormsi. I can’t say any of them were particularly outstanding, but it was great for ticking off some new breweries.

Next up was Estonia’s capital city, Tallinn. We arrived here knowing exactly what we were looking for on the beer front having done our research online, so the first port of call was the tourist information office. Poppy, always a fan of a free city map, picked one up and we marked on the best-rated beer bars so we could work out how to fit them in with our sightseeing. After visiting them all, our favourite was an underground bar called Põrgu, which translates into English as “Hell”! Despite the name, it was a really comfortable and friendly place with a huge range of beers and some excellent food too. Our beer highlights were again from Sori Brewing and Pühaste, but we also sampled beers from the likes of Lehe, Põhjala and Kolk during our three visits.

The Põhjala brewery and tap room

No beer trip to Tallinn would be complete without a visit to the Põhjala tap room, so one Saturday afternoon we headed to the trendy Kalamaja district where the brewery is located to try it out. We were already aware of Põhjala having seen their bottles around Sheffield, but there’s nothing quite like trying beer at its source. We were very impressed by the tap room, a large modern bar with a vibrant atmosphere and 20-odd beer fonts, 80% of them serving the brewery’s own beers. The tasting flights were pretty reasonably priced too, giving us chance to try as many as possible.

The final destination on our Estonian beer tour was Tartu, a university city in the south of the country. It seemed common sense that where there were students there would be beer, and so it proved! The city is home to the country’s largest beer manufacturer, A. Le Coq, which offered an enjoyable brewery tour for €10 per person, although the tasting at the end was limited to one beer each, which seemed a little stingy. Tartu is also the location of Pühaste brewery, and while the brewery itself only opens for special events, their flagship bar in the city centre is open all year round and was well worth a visit. Our highlight though had to be the deTolly Õllebaar, hidden downstairs under a building that looked like a public toilet but was actually a cafe. The bar itself was small but stocked a good range of beers, all presided over by a friendly (and very tall) owner.

As I write this we’re about to head into Latvia to see what we can find there. If you’d like to keep up to date with our adventures you can go to our blog, hoppingaround.co.uk – thanks to everyone who’s already been reading! As well as beer, Poppy’s also been writing up some of the other interesting places we’ve been and she’s been keeping a daily photo gallery, so there’s something for everyone.

Dominic Nelson

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