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Brewing koduõlu on Hiiumaa

Posted in Beer on 2018-03-11 15:06

The guesthouse and brewery

On Hiiumaa we drove off the ferry, then a couple hundred meters up the main road, turned off, and within a few minutes we were outside the house. We were there to brew a koduõlu, an Estonian farmhouse ale, with Paavo Pruul, who runs a small bed & breakfast. We parked outside the guest house, where the wooden brewing vessels were standing right outside the door. It turns out Paavo's brewery is actually in the guest house.

A few moments later, Paavo came over to greet us. He's a slim, fortyish man, with an easy, friendly self-confidence, and, thankfully for us, speaks good English with a strong Estonian accent. He wasted no time, so within an hour of our arrival, he'd started the process. The first step was to carry the malts over to an outhouse, where Paavo has installed the malt mill his grandfather built in the 1940s.

Electrical malt mill

In the old days, people would usually grind their malts using two flat, circular stones mounted on top of each other in a wooden frame, and turn the stones by hand. This was hard, tedious work, and grinding the malts for a single brew could take hours. Paavo's grandfather solved this by mounting the traditional stones into a welded steel frame and adding an electrical engine to turn the stones. This same grandfather, a famous local brewer, was the one who taught Paavo how to brew, and Paavo still brews in much the same way.

Once the malts had been ground we were ready to start. Paavo has built a bricked-in kettle onto the porch of the guest house, and here he'd been heating water for the brewing. The boiling water was poured into the mashtun, and the ground malts poured on top while we took turns stirring the mash.

Paavo stirring the mash

The tuns are known in Estonian as "tõrs". The mashtun is called "kaima tõrs," while the lautering tun is "kalja tõrs." The wooden pole used to stir the mash is called "erk." Once the stirring of the mash was finished, I brought out my thermometer and measured the temperature. 70-72C, depending on where I stuck the probe.

Once the mashtun was ready, Paavo packed it down with the malt sack and a padded jacket to make sure it stayed warm. Then he started boiling the hop tea, by dropping dried hops into the same kettle he used to heat the brewing water. I didn't see him measure the hops, so I asked how much he used. Paavo said he's never weighed the hops, so he doesn't know. "Some handfuls is the measure," he said.

Making hop tea

And then he did something I'd never seen before: he brought out a sprig of sweet gale, and dropped that in, too. Sweet gale is a legendary brewing herb that was used in gruit beers, and also in farmhouse ales in Scandinavia, but the use seems to have died down dramatically in the last few centuries. Paavo is the only brewer I've spoken to who actually uses it. He said his grandfather did not use gale, but since it was traditional on Hiiumaa and Paavo liked the taste he started using it. His grandfather used juniper branches in the brewing water, but many people don't like too much juniper flavour, so Paavo has reduced the amount somewhat.

While hop tea was boiling and the beer was mashing, Paavo got out his wheelbarrow, and took us off along a forest road. Now we were ready to pick juniper. There were lots of huge, healthy-looking juniper bushes all around the house, but Paavo wanted to use juniper he had been cutting in the forest, to clear room for a new house he was about to build. The juniper was going to be used as the filter for the lautering, just like in Norway.

The juniper

Back at the brewery it was time to make the lautering tun ready. This was the classic "B-type" lautering tun, with a hole in the bottom, and a large rod, called "narre", sticking out of the tun, for opening and closing the hole. Paavo cut the juniper more finely, then tied some of it juniper to the pole in a broom-like shape, just like in Latvia. The rest was laid on the bottom of the tun, then wedged down with a stick.

Juniper filter all ready

Once the filter was ready, we headed over to grandpa's farm, since that was where Paavo got his hops. Along one side of the garden, a long row of tall hop plants formed a high fence. I told Paavo it's great that he's doing all the work to preserve the traditional hops, but he just looked at me. "We don't need to do anything," he said. "Now and then we pull down some of them so they don't take over the whole garden, but that's it." He picks the hops in late August or early September, when the first of them go a little brown. He's tried planting the hops on his own farm, but they don't grow very well, since the soil is too thin.

The hop garden

Paavo also showed us his grandfather's malt kiln. It's very similar to the ones Meelis Sepp and Aarne Trei's neighbour had. There is a fireplace connected to a chimney, heating a floor where the malts are laid. The malts are gently heated, and kept apart from the smoke. "Brewing is easy," said Paavo. "Anyone can add hot water, but making malts, now that requires skill."

The mash

Back at the brewery, Paavo poured the hop tea into the mashtun, with the hops and the gale still in it. Then he put new water and juniper branches into the kettle. Now he was making juniper infusion for the lautering. Then there was another hour to wait, while the mashing went on. Finally, after three hours in total, the mashing was done. The temperature had now sunk to 67C.

Strainer and trough

The next step was to transfer the mash to the lautering tun, which was done by bucket. Once it was all moved, it was time to pour juniper infusion onto it. The infusion had boiled for an hour, and was now brown, roughly the colour of tea. Underneath the tun Paavo had placed a wooden trough to receive the wort. The rod was lifted, and now the pale brown wort ran down into this trough.

Wort running off

From the trough the wort was scooped up into a milk can, and once the milk can was full, the whole thing was lowered into the well to be cooled. The lautering was a slow process, so it took a long time to fill the milk can. Once the wort was cooled, it was poured into the fermenter. (Yeah, koduõlu is a raw ale.)

Crushing blackcurrant leaves

After the wort for the main beer had run off, Paavo continued running off wort, because there was still sugar in the malts. From this second wort he made a small beer, which he calls "taherberi." Making small beer in this way has been common everywhere people made farmhouse ale. Like Aarne Trei, Paavo used to make taar as well, but since it requires a separate fermenter he's stopped.

Meanwhile, Paavo was doing another thing I'd never seen before: he was crushing blackcurrant leaves in a mortar. Then the leaves were added to the yeast starter. I asked Paavo why, and he said his grandfather taught him to do this, "but I don't know if it's theoretically right." Originally, his grandfather dried the yeast between brews on blackcurrant leaves. Paavo uses Safale S-04, and he can't remember his grandfather ever having his own yeast.

The yeast starter

Once all the wort had been transferred and the temperature was correct (around 18-21C), it was time to pitch the yeast. Paavo said he had been taught that when pitching the yeast he had to say the names of all the angry dogs in the village. If he forgot one the beer wouldn't ferment. Then he tipped the bucket into the fermenter without saying a word.

Pitching the yeast

"But you didn't say anything! It's not going to ferment now," I protested. Paavo just gave me a lopsided grin, and said "I don't have to say it out loud. I can just say it in my mind." And he must have, because the next day the beer was fermenting. This, of course, is yet another variation on the yeast scream.

Paavo also showed us an õllekann. He said his grandfather made 200 of these during his life, and he taught Paavo to make them, too, but Paavo has just made 20-25. They're made from juniper wood, and the whole process takes three days when done the traditional way without glue. There's not much money in it, though, so he'd make more money cutting firewood for three days, he said. Paavo agreed you can sand the inside to make the aroma stronger, but he said that even if you don't there will always be some juniper aroma left.


When the beer is finished, it is transferred from the fermenter to keg. When his grandfather's beer was transferred, the neighbour would drop by, asking if he could borrow their ladder, which was longer than his own. Of course, he would be offered beer, and of course he would stay a while, tasting the beer with Paavo's grandfather. He did this every single time the beer was finished for 40 years.

The next day it was time for us to head off to see more of Hiiumaa. The beer was of course by no means finished fermenting, but we took a bottle of it, anyway, and put it in the seat pocket of the car. Amund, who sat in the back, kept watch over it as we drove round, and made sure the still fermenting beer didn't burst the bottle.

We tasted it before it was completely finished fermenting, basically because we had no choice, since we were about to leave the country. It was a lovely, delicate beer, very clean-tasting with herbal touches from both juniper, gale, and the blackcurrant leaves. Of course, it wasn't really finished, but if it had been given time to finish it would have been a really good beer.

Brown juniper infusion


Paavo used 100% Weyermann Vienna malts. For 170-180 liters of beer he usually uses 50 kilos of malt. I measured the OG of his beer to 1.066. If we assume 75% attenuation then the beer had an FG of 1.016 and an ABV of 6.6%. The taherberi was 1.038, so with the same assumptions it would be 1.009 and 3.8%.

Start by boiling water, and mashing in at 70-72C. Wait two hours while "some handfuls" of hops and a sprig of sweet gale are boiled in water. Then pour those on, fill the kettle with water and juniper branches, and boil again. After three hours (two for the first step, one for the second), the temperature should be down to 67C. I measured the mash pH to 5.8.

Filter the mash slowly through juniper branches, and cool the wort to 18-21C. Make a yeast starter with some wort and crushed blackcurrant leaves, then pitch while saying the names of all the angry dogs in your area. Let it ferment for three days, then transfer to keg.

The road to Sõru

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Dave - 2018-03-11 19:49:39

Interesting invocation! I wonder if in this case the dogs are being sort of recruited to scream/bark on one's behalf. I'm guessing that watch dogs might have once been thought to have been good at scaring away evil spirits, including those that infect beer?

Lars Marius Garshol - 2018-03-11 20:16:12

Good question, Dave. I don't really know. I guess it's noteworthy that it's angry dogs, not just any dogs, so that kind of points in the direction you were thinking. It's possible.

Other brewers in the area said they would say the same as when hunting with dogs: "Get them! Attack!" or "Go get them, boys!" That's more logical, I guess.

Trevor - 2018-03-12 02:56:24

So following those instructions the starter wouldn't actually be active when pitched? If we're you to use this recipe would you use s04? Would you drink it after 3 days? I assume it would be very difficulty to drink without consuming a lot of fairly active yeast still in suspension. This sounds like a lot of fun to make.

Lars Marius Garshol - 2018-03-12 07:49:22

@Trevor: The starter was actually active, as you can see:

No, I don't think I would use S-04. I think I would use hefeweizen yeast or Suomen Hiiva, to get the banana character that's typical of koduõlu. It looks like you can also get that character with T-58, so that's another good alternative.

I've drunk fermenting beer before. It was fine.

Trevor G Fisher - 2018-03-12 14:22:19

Thanks Lars, how long was the starter let to get active before pitching?

Lars Marius Garshol - 2018-03-12 16:20:32

@Trevor: Not very long. Roughly 15:45 he put the yeast into wort, and 17:09 it was fermenting visibly. I'm surprised S-04 would do that, but it did. However, this was wet yeast from the fridge, reused from the previous brew, and not dry yeast.

Alec - 2018-03-16 19:36:37

Hi Lars, would you be able to elaborate on or link me to what you mean by 'classic "B-type" lautering tun'? I wish to build a wooden brewing system and have been looking for designs, however, I have found it very difficult to find any pictures of internal components. Mostly I have found pictures of tuns from the outside, not particularly helpfully. Thank you for writing this blog, it has been very illuminating and a source of encouragement as I move to start my own farmhouse brewery.



Lars Marius Garshol - 2018-03-16 20:01:49

@Alec: Good question, and a very cool project!

There's a good drawing here:

Some photos here that may be helpful:

The idea is really very, very simple. There's a hole in the bottom of the tun, usually off to one side to make it easier to get a bucket underneath while standing the tun on the type of stool you see in the pictures. The long rod is tapered toward the end, so that lifting it gradually increases the flow.

That's really all there is to the tun itself. The filter in the bottom can be made different ways, using juniper, straw, false bottom with holes, etc etc.

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