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Pihtla, a farmhouse brewery on Saaremaa

Posted in Beer on 2018-02-13 16:02

Mekituba, the brewery outlet (in Pihtla village)

Koduõlu is one of the few farmhouse styles that you can actually buy right now, thanks to the commercial brewery Pihtla Õlleköök, in the village of Pihtla on Saaremaa island in Estonia. They make a number of beers, but the star is undoubtedly their koduõlu, called Pihtla Õlu. As far as I know, that's the only koduõlu that's easily available at the moment. It's even served in Tallinn, at Põrgu, and maybe other places, too.

Trahter Veski, in Kuressaare on Saaremaa

On Saaremaa there is a bar called Trahter Veski in Kuressaare, the main town on the island, where you can get fresh Pihtla on tap. So of course that was our first stop when we came to the island. Later we had Pihtla again at Mekituba, the brewery outlet in Pihtla village itself. I had it in Tallinn a few times as well, and even brought it home. What surprised me was that it never seemed to be the same beer twice. That is, you can recognize the beer when you taste it, but major components of the flavour seem to be different each time. Which is perhaps the way it should be for a true farmhouse ale.

Fresh Pihtla, at Mekituba

As for the beer itself, the head is white, and the body is always a milky opaque yellow. This is typical of raw ale, because all the protein is still in the beer. The aroma has the classic green, musty, grainy raw ale flavour, with quite a bit of juniper flavour, and also a strong ripe banana yoghurt character, from the yeast. Full-bodied, sweet, and yet easy to drink. Too easy, for a beer that's 7.6%. It's a really good beer, a good representative for a very rare style that deserves to be much better known.

The brewery

We had made an appointment to meet Arvet Väli, the brewer at Pihtla. Arvet, a broad, stocky figure with a vaguely military bearing, met us outside the brewery. He started the brewery in December 1990, just after Estonia declared itself independent of the Soviet Union. Under communism private enterprise had been strictly limited, and this was just after the rules had been loosened. So clearly they lost no time in getting started.

It must have been quite challenging to start a conventional brewery in Estonia at that time. Where would you get large-scale brewing gear? Or a professional brewer? Getting supplies of ingredients from abroad must have been difficult. On the other hand, there would be very little competition other than run-down half-hearted former state-owned breweries. And the island was full of people who knew how to brew. Barley, malts, juniper, and hops could all be had locally. So a traditional brewery would be something else entirely. And that's what Arvet started.

Arvet by the water heater

Arvet took us into the brewery itself. It's pretty professional-looking with tiled walls and painted concrete floors, although the equipment is fairly small, and unusual. Arvet walked us through the setup. First a bricked-in water heater, with steel pipes leading to the mashtun. The mashtun is painted dark red on the outside, and dark green on the inside, with a weird green steel prong for stirring the mash.

The lauter tun

Next comes the lauter tun, which has a false steel bottom with little slits. Arvet says when they brew Pihtla they put juniper branches in the bottom of the tun, to get the right flavour. Of course, with the steel bottom the branches are not needed for filtering. In order to avoid infections they boil the juniper before using it, because from the lauter tun the wort is piped to the fermenter.

Arvet by the fermenter

So, as you can see, this is a raw ale brewery. The wort is never boiled. The hops are boiled in water on an ordinary kitchen stove to make hop tea, which is then mixed into the wort. So the brewing process is very similar to the true farmhouse koduõlu that Meelis Sepp served us.

They use Estonian baking yeast, just like the Finnish sahti brewers use Finnish baking yeast. They pitch the yeast at 23-24C, but in the fermenter the temperature will usually rise, and if the temperature goes above 30C they will cool it down. The beer ferments for about two days, which, strange as it may sound, is actually typical for farmhouse ale. However, they do mature it for about a week at 4C in separate maturation tanks.

Mashtun with steel prong

The brewkit doesn't look like any other that I've seen, and Arvet explained that they scavenged the parts from a Soviet-era soap factory. The annual production is just 30,000 liters, and they say they have difficulty making enough of the Pihtla, which is encouraging. It's not the easiest beer to distribute, though, as they consider the shelf life to be just 2 weeks. So whether it will ever be seen abroad is not clear. They're considering to expand the brewery, however, so who knows.

Alo, Arvet's nephew, spent a lot of time in the brewery, helping his uncle, and in 2015 he joined the brewery. Alo wanted Pihtla to start brewing craft beer, so they now make an Irish Red Ale, a Porter, and so on. Brewing craft beer in a brewery with no kettle was not easy, but they figured out they could hose the wort from the lauter tun to the water boiler, boil it there, and hose it from there to the fermenter. So they managed to make it work. And their porter is quite good.

Amund tasting Pihtla from maturation tank

What I found particularly interesting about this brewery, apart from the beer itself, is the similarities and differences with the Lithuanian farmhouse breweries such as Piniavos, Jovaru Alus, and so on. Just like those breweries, Pihtla was started the moment communism ended and private enterprise was allowed again, and just like them it was based on the local farmhouse tradition. But Pihtla seems to have been more commercial right from the start, starting out with the soap factory gear instead of brewing in wood, and was not started in the family barn. I'm not sure why, to be honest.

We went over to Mekituba, where Alo was waiting for us. "Everyone else calls the beer 'koduõlu'," said Alo, "but Arvet has called it 'taluõlu' the whole time, 25 years straight." And, indeed, it says "Saaremaa taluõlu" on the bottle. The difference is that "koduõlu" means "home beer," while "taluõlu" means "house beer." It's just different names for the same style. The label also describes the beer as "Saaremaa sahti". Arvet says this is because many Finns, familiar with sahti and recognizing the similarity, calls the beer "Saaremaa sahti." It helps explain to tourists what kind of beer it is.

The bar inside Mekituba

The main difference between koduõlu and sahti, says Arvet, is that the Estonians put the koduõlu in keg after primary fermentation, so that the beer builds up some carbonation there. He claims the sahti brewers don't do it, so that sahti is less carbonated. That fits with the two commercial sahtis I've had.

In a corner of the bar, some bottles catch my eye. The labels say "kadakasiirup," which means "juniper syrup." One is pure, one mixed with rhubarb, and one with cane sugar. I've read about juniper syrup in Norway, so I assume it's made the same way, by drying and boiling juniper berries to extract sugar, then concentrating by evaporating most of the water. Alo says it is used to marinate meat, as herbal tea, and so on. It makes sense that they should have more juniper products here, because Saaremaa has huge, beautiful juniper trees growing everywhere. We Norwegians were eyeing them enviously throughout the trip.

Pihtla mug at Trahter Veski

I can't promise that this beer will ever be available outside of Estonia, but if you do come to Estonia, this is the one beer you really have to try. As far as I know it's the only Estonian-style beer that's widely available in Estonia.







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Comments

André - 2018-02-16 12:51:09

Puhtia is invited every year the the Suuret Oluet Pienet Pienet Panimot festival in Helsinki so their beer is available outside Estonia at least once per year.

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