Meelis Sepp, maltster and brewer

<< 2018-01-28 13:57 >>

The brewhouse

From Setomaa we drove right across all of Estonia to the west coast, then took the ferry over to the island of Muhu. From there we took the bridge over to the island of Saaremaa, the second biggest island in the Baltic, after Gotland. Saaremaa is famous for its farmhouse brewing, in a style known as "koduõlu", meaning "home beer." We have an appointment with Meelis Sepp, a farmer and brewer in Kõrkkula, in the south-western part of the island.

Left to right: Kati, Meelis, Jüri.

We found Sepp via the tourist information on Saaremaa. Our helper there, Kati Aus, knows him and knew that he was a brewer, so she drove us to the farm, and translated for us. His brewery is in a separate modern building on the farm, next to the main house. In there we found Meelis Sepp, the brewer, together with his close friend Jüri Mesila, who brews with him. "Those two are inseparable," says Kati. At the back was also an old man, presumably grandfather.

Kati pours the beer.

Sepp knew we wanted to taste the beer, so he had it ready when we came, in a blue plastic bucket. Kati poured it into an enamel mug which the four of us visitors shared. The beer had a healthy-looking lasting foam, but what colour it was was impossible to say. It was sweetish, and balanced by a light acidity, with a light, fluffy mouthfeel that made it dangerously easy to drink. The taste was dusty hay and straw, some fruity gooseberry-like flavours, with light earthy pea notes. It has some of the typical raw ale character, and making the malt character stand out with dusty hay/straw flavours is typical for raw ale.

It's really an amazing beer. It's rare to find a beer this good anywhere, and when you do it's something you remember for a long time. That dusty, fluffy straw and fruit character stayed with me for weeks after we tasted the beer. The others were equally impressed, and Kati translated as we praised the beer. Sepp showed no visible reaction at all. I suspect he knows perfectly well that this is an outstanding beer.

The strainer

Sepp says he learned to brew from his father, and that he still makes his own malts and brews in the exact same way his father did. He's a classic farmhouse brewer, in other words, born and raised in the tradition. His ingredient list is pretty simple: 80 kilos of his own malts, hops, and juniper branches, baking yeast, for 200 liters of beer. I tried to ask how much hops he uses, but he didn't know. "A football-sized bundle," he said eventually.

The process is also straightforward: pour 70C water onto the malts, then wait four hours. Meanwhile, he prepares the strainer, laying juniper branches on the bottom, then hops on top. The strainer is shown above, and the whole thing, tun, rod, stool, is a classic I recognize from museums and drawings in source material. That strainer would look entirely at home in a Danish museum, or anywhere in Sweden, or in Lithuania.

The mash is transferred to the strainer, then run off slowly. He cools the wort off to 28-34C (he uses a thermometer), then pitches the baking yeast. He lets the beer ferment for 24 hours before he transfers it to the barrel, where it has to rest for 2-3 days before it's ready to drink.

Sepp said he thinks the beer is about 8-10%, but he's never measured it. I used a refractometer and it showed an FG of 1.036 (this is not the actual final gravity!). If we assume he has 50% efficiency from the homemade malts then the beer is 5.5% (OG 1.060, FG 1.019). That seems a little low. If the efficiency is 60% then the beer is 8.2% (OG 1.074, FG 1.015). The latter is perhaps nearer the mark, but it's hard to know for sure.

Apart from the baking yeast, and the absence of juniper infusion, this is very similar to Norwegian kornøl, although the taste is somewhat different.

The beer

I tried asking more about the yeast, and they told us that in Soviet times buying yeast was difficult, and the quality unreliable. So people mostly had their own yeast. Traditionally they would keep it in a jar in the well. He had his own yeast, but stopped using it when it became possible to buy yeast. He's not sure when it happened, but he thinks it was in the mid-90s. So just after the end of communism, in other words. Which makes sense.

I tried asking about superstition and for the first time Sepp's poker face slipped, because he looked distinctly uncomfortable as he said that when pitching the yeast his father would say "some strong words." I guess he didn't like admitting to superstition, but this is really interesting. It's clearly a close relative of the yeast scream. Central Norway, southern Sweden, Finland, Latvia, and now Estonia. It's really odd that a custom like this, which has no practical function, should be shared over such a huge area, and across language boundaries.

When I tried to ask if someone might still have their own yeast on Saaremaa Sepp shook his head, but his friend spoke up. Yes, there is a guy in Lümanda, whose name he didn't remember, who has his own yeast. But it makes a different flavour, he said, "it would taste like old beer." It's probably gone sour, then, but that sounds about right.

At this point grandpa shouted something from the back. Sepp and Jüri pretended not to hear, but I asked Kati what he said. It turned out to be: "The most important thing is to have good yeast!"

The malt house

We wanted to know how he makes his malts, so we headed over to the malt house, which is really more of a multipurpose building. He uses barley he himself grows, then soaks it, and finally puts it in a 10cm thick layer to sprout. Sprouting takes two weeks, after which the rootlets have made the grain stick together in hard "cakes." He uses some kind of machine to tear them loose again.

The drying floor

Then comes the drying, which happens on the upper floor of the building. The green malts are spread out on the floor, and a fireplace on the ground floor is heated. They don't malt in the summer, because it's too hot for the malts to sprout properly, so when we were there the room was used to dry onions. It has a pipe leading the hot air under the floor, then up a chimney and out of the building. So the floor is heated, but only gently. The resulting malts should be very pale, and definitely smoke-free. The building is obviously old, so this must be a traditional drying method.

The fireplace

We came out of the building and I noticed a barley field literally on the other side of the road. "Is this where the barley comes from," I asked. Sepp nodded. So this really is as farmhouse as a beer can get, apart from them using baking yeast. Amazingly good it was, too. We headed back to the brewery, where all four of us guys took some more sips from the mug, shaking our heads in wonder at how fantastic this beer was.

Then it was time to head off, because in 30 minutes we were meeting another brewer.

The barley field

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Caleb Brown - 2018-01-29 02:08:56

What kind of bread yeast and how much would they pitch?

Lars Marius Garshol - 2018-01-29 07:24:26

@Caleb: Well, Estonian bread yeast. I'm trying to find out what kind it is. I'm not sure how much, either, but I'll try to find out.

Marco - 2018-01-29 18:59:08

This guy in Lümanda sounds like someone worth a visit

Lars Marius Garshol - 2018-01-29 19:04:20

@Marco: Yes, definitely. I'm trying two different contacts now, in the hope of being able to trace him. Without the name it's going to be difficult, of course.

Rein Metshein - 2022-01-14 13:40:42

Who was the next brewer there you were going to visit? These guys in Pihtla or some other one?

Lars Marius Garshol - 2022-01-14 19:27:05

@Rein: Pihtla, yes. If you click the ">>" under the heading you go to the next blog post, which is about Pihtla.

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