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Claire Millard's picture

Põhjala Brewery Leads Quiet Revolution in Estonian Beer

Even in Europe, the average Joe would struggle to place Estonia on a map. But if you're a craft beer fan, it's worth digging out your atlas, because tucked up there on the snowy northern edge of Europe, a quiet revolution is taking place. The Estonians are coming. But don't worry, they're bringing beer.

Põhjala - Fathers of the Revolution

Leading the charge are Põhjala. The brewery, in a leafy suburb of the capital, Tallinn, reflects the ambitious team’s growth story perfectly. One of the first purpose-built craft breweries in Estonia, the facility has only been online for two years. Despite being expanded three times already, it will soon be a casualty of Põhjala’s explosive growth, with a new brewery in the works with an initial capacity four to five times that of their current, fully extended operation. For now, the team of twelve are embracing the clutter of the creative process.

From the comfort of their well-worn sofa, surrounded by towering piles of ingredients, co-founder and M.D., Enn Parel, and Head Brewer, Chris Pilkington, tell me their story.

Enn Parel, co-founder of Põhjala, was an "early adopter" of craft brews when exports began to trickle into Estonia in the mid-2000s.

"As a consumer I have a long history with beer," says Enn, with characteristically deadpan Estonian humour - but in the Estonia that emerged in the early 90s, dazed and bruised from decades of Soviet occupation, choices for "beer guys" like Enn were limited. Despite a proud tradition of brewing, the early years of independent statehood saw a segment dominated by cookie-cutter conglomerates producing mediocre lager. Their only competition was a handful of microbreweries trying to compete with the big boys on price and product, or Estonia’s traditional farm beers – brewed with unboiled wort, baker's yeast, and often flavoured with juniper. Even for a patriotic Estonian, these are, Enn says, "an acquired taste."

Enn never did learn to love farm beers, and so traveling outside of Estonia become an exercise in beer exploration, before becoming an "early adopter" when exports of craft beer finally reached Estonia in the mid-2000s. Drinking turned to experiments in brewing, and by the end of 2011, with some homebrewing experience under their collective belts, Enn and co-founders Peeter Keek and Gren Noormets had resolved to launch their own brewery. Põhjala (pronounced ‘puh-ya-la’, and meaning ‘Nordic’ in Estonian) was born.

The quick leap from small-scale homebrewer to commercial craft brewery founder may seem extreme – but since independence, Estonia has embraced and applauded entrepreneurial spirit with an enthusiasm the rest of Europe rarely musters. "Leap before you look" could be a national motto. But when Estonians hustle, they do it well. Having founded the company with limited brewing knowledge but lots of enthusiasm, the team took themselves to Fraserburgh to see how Brewdog ran a commercial operation. Having spotted Brewdog founder James Watt in a bar in Aberdeen, the guys got talking and hustled their way to a short internship.

The experience resulted in an alarming discovery. "That’s when we realized," Enn says, "that we were shit brewers, and we needed to bring in someone who knew what they were doing." Luckily for craft beer fans in the Baltics and beyond, fortune favors the brave -– and instead of this revelation putting paid to their dreams, it became key to their success. The founders started to look for a savior, and found one in the form of talented brewer Chris Pilkington, who was working with Brewdog at the time. Having tempted Chris over to Estonia as a partner in the endeavor, the rest, as they say, is history.

Põhjala's head brewer Chris Pilkington joined the team after the founders realized their brewing skills were subpar.