Aarne Trei, a koduõlu veteran
Aarne, in his brewery
From the previous stop we drove just a few kilometers, to meet brewmaster Aarne Trei. I'd really been looking forward to meeting Aarne, because for a couple of years I'd been reading and re-reading the only piece of documentation I could find on koduõlu, a report from a Finnish home-brewer who visited Saaremaa in Estonia in 1995. One of the brewmasters he met and interviewed was Aarne Trei.
Aarne was 73 years when we visited him in the summer of 2016, so he didn't speak English, but his son-in-law Andrus Viil was also there, as translator. They told us that Aarne learned to brew from his uncle as a small boy. So he probably learned to brew in the early 1950s, the end of the Stalin era. Later, when his family trusted him he was allowed to brew on his own. So this makes him a real farmhouse brewer, someone born and raised in the tradition.
Koduõlu and food, at Suitsukala in Nasva
In the old days, he said, "when there was a holiday, then the first task was to brew beer and smoke fish. After that, everything was all right." This was echoed by several people we met: the Saaremaa way of life is to drink koduõlu and eat smoked fish. We even visited a small restaurant dedicated to smoked fish and koduõlu.
In Soviet times, home brewing was allowed, so long as you didn't sell the beer. "The village men would gather where the beer was made, which made the wives angry." When someone brewed, people would see the smoke from the brewhouse, and realize what was going on. Later, they would come by and say "my car broke down," or something similar, and, since the brewer was busy kegging beer and cleaning, a party would develop. It sounds like a less formal version of the Norwegian oppskåke.
Aarne's koduõlu in the õllekanne
Now it was time to taste the beer, so Andrus brought out a surprise: an õllekanne. That's Estonian for the big traditional wooden mugs. This one was made from both oak wood and juniper wood, and when empty it actually has a lovely smell of juniper wood. Andrus said that if the aroma disappears after some years you can sand the inside of the mug, and the aroma will come back. Very similar mugs were used in Norway, too, known as "ølkanne", and just as with these they were decorated by using hot irons to make burn marks in the wood.
And the beer itself was just fantastic. Sweet, light and delicate in the mouth, like a fluffy meringue, with a lovely banana flavour that went extremely well with the juniper wood aroma from the tankard. "Like a dream," says my notes. Small wonder that Aarne was a famous brewer in the area, because this beer was just absurdly good. I guess 60 years of brewing the same beer helps.
I measured the sugar content using my refractometer. That value can't be used directly, but if we assume the OG was the same that Ari Järmälä measured in 1995 (and the ratio of malts to wort was still the same when I visited), then the OG was 1.064, FG 1.014, and the beer 6.9%. Which matches well with how it tasted.
Talking with Aarne and Andrus, õllekanne in hand
Aarne told us that it was common to run off a second wort from the same malts, to make what was known as "taherberi". In English this would be "small beer." This would be a weaker beer for everyday use.
People would also make "taar", which was made after the taherberi, by leaving water (or juniper infusion) on the malts for a few days until it soured. Then it was run off and ready to drink. No yeast was added, because there wasn't really enough sugar for it to ferment. Instead, this drink was protected against harmful bacteria by the acid. Aarne said it was drunk against thirst during the harvest work. People had to have separate vessels for the taar, because beer made in those vessels would tend to turn sour. Probably because bacteria settled in the wood.
Martin Thibault, very pleased with the koduõlu
Aarne used Weyermann malts, but knew how to make malts the traditional way, and was considering to start doing that again. He did a 4-hour long mash with two temperature steps, but he asked me not to publish the temperatures. He said it's only the last few years he has measured the mash temperature, which fits nicely with the Finnish account, where no mash temperature is given.
Aarne didn't use juniper at all. No juniper infusion, and no juniper in the filter. He told us that this was traditional, but also said that his uncle used straw and juniper in the filter. Very likely there were people who used only straw.
Everyone used to grow hops on long poles, but today people mostly buy it. If people didn't have hops, presumably because the harvest failed or they were so poor they had to sell them, they would use "sookail" instead. It took us a while to figure out that this was marsh Labrador tea, Ledum palustre, which was also used in Sweden. "It made the beer stronger," said Aarne. Then he added "gives nice headache as well." He was probably right, because it's actually mildly toxic.
The fermenting beer
Another plant people used, said Aarne, was sweet gale, Myrica gale. This was no surprise, because this is perhaps the most famous brewing herb after hops. It's been used in Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, too, and it was also used in gruit.
Aarne boiled hop tea on an ordinary kitchen stove, then added it just before fermentation. This, he said, is because the wort is not boiled, and the fermentation "can get out of hand." I don't know what he meant by that, but this is something many farmhouse brewers are concerned with: they worry that the fermentation will be too vigourous. Exactly why I'm not sure.
Aarne used baking yeast. He told us that earlier he used to have his own yeast, "because yeast could be hard to get." He would harvest the yeast from the bottom of the fermenter and use it in the next beer. The yeast was shared in the village, and people would borrow yeast from those who had good beer. Note that this means people were breeding the yeast, and keeping the strains that made the best beer. This, basically, is how yeast was domesticated. Aarne said he gave up his yeast some time in the 1970s or 80s. Andrus says that this is the time when baking yeast became available.
Water heater. Right the kettle for the hop tea
Aarne pitched at 24-25C, but he said that in the old days people measured the temperature with their hands or elbows. He thinks the temperature they used then was about 34C. When pitching the yeast, one had to add it from south to north in the fermenter, and yell something loud, so that the beer would be strong. That's the yeast scream, again.
As we drank the beer and quizzed Aarne on every aspect of the local beer culture the mood kept rising, and Aarne got quite excited. So he invited us over to his neighbour, to show his malt kiln, and old wooden brewing vessels. The malt kiln was constructed the same way as Meelis Sepp's. The neighbour eventually got quite excited as well, and showed us the fully working tractor he built himself, for his grandson. Like an idiot, I didn't take pictures of it.
The neighbour, showing off his wooden brewing gear
Aarne and Andrus told us that they had plans to start a commercial brewery, to be called Pihtla pruulikoda OÜ (Pihtla brewery Ltd), after the village. (It's not actually the same name as the other brewery, also in the same village, because formally that company name is named Taako OÜ.) That would be a fantastic development, since it would mean that there would be two koduõlu on the market, and it would make Aarne's fantastic beer available.
However, in late January this year, about a month ago, an email from Andrus arrived. I'll just quote what he wrote:
On 20th Aarne Trei passed away. Bit of Pihtla village and Saaremaa brewing history left the island.
So your visit was on time. It was possibly the best moment to be here and meet him.
PS, I guess I am brewer@ Pihtlapruulikoda OÜ now, master has left the building.
So Aarne is dead, and one of the great farmhouse brewing masters is gone. A lot of the farmhouse brewers are getting on in years, so there really is a sense of the tradition literally dying out. On Saaremaa, thankfully, there are also young brewers, so the tradition there does not seem to be in any danger. And in this case Andrus is there to carry on the tradition. Before Aarne died they sorted out all the licenses and permits for making beer commercially, and started the company. Andrus is brewing the beer, and trying to sell it in Tallinn and other places. So there is a real chance that there will continue to be two breweries making koduõlu.
Andrus has set up a Facebook page and a website. He says that if you visit the island you can contact him via either Facebook or email, and buy beer. So if you stop by Pihtla you can actually take two different koduõlu with you. I really hope he is successful, because this is a style that deserves more breweries, and a beer that deserves to be available.
As for us, this was our last stop on Saaremaa. We drove to the north tip of the island, then took the ferry across to Hiiumaa, the smaller neighbouring island, to see what it might have to offer.
On the ferry leaving Saaremaa island
We visited quite a few brewers on Saaremaa, Hiiumaa, and Muhu, and tasted a good number of different koduõlu, so it's time to summarize all that to make a proper description of a style that has barely any documentation in English at all
Read | 2018-04-05 18:55
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
Read | 2018-03-11 15:06
Caleb Brown - 2018-02-18 15:45:20
What sort of grain did they use? Also, can you get a similar bread yeast anywhere else?
Lars Marius Garshol - 2018-02-18 15:58:04
Barley malts seemed to be the only thing.
There are two bread yeasts in use on Saaremaa. One is apparently the same as the Finnish one, Suomen Hiiva. The other I'm not sure of yet.
JOHN S LEBAN - 2018-02-18 19:33:41
I love this article and the history behind it. Craft brewing has a long ways to go in order to keep this going