We didn’t expect to find excellent craft beer in Tallinn, the capital city of Estonia. Sure, we’ve enjoyed craft beer in various corners of the world from Sweden to Vietnam, but we never thought about beer in the Baltics. Borscht, yes, but not well crafted beer. However, excellent craft beer is exactly what we found on our first night in Northern Europe.
If you haven’t been to Tallinn, picture a storybook city with centuries old buildings dotting charming cobblestone streets. Though still a somewhat hidden gem among Americans, Tallinn has become a popular tourist destination for Europeans and has a burgeoning digital nomad community. While the tourists might settle for Estonia’s old school lager, the savvy new residents demand more – and that’s where Põhjala Brewery comes into play.
Founded in 2011, Põhjala has a secret weapon in head brewer Chris Pilkington, a Scott by birth but an Estonian by passion. He came to Põhjala as head brewer after a stint at BrewDog in Scotland. Fueled with a knowledge about beer and a desire to incorporate a local, historical focus into Põhjala’s product, Pilkington and his team brewed Öö as their first beer – a Baltic Imperial Porter with a 10.5% ABV – about as far away from a typical lager as possible. The brewery describes the beer as being “as dark as the Estonian winter nights,” an apt description for the highly flavorful beer.
Pilkington likens his craft to that of a chef. He claims that he’s never been very good in the kitchen but admits that he can brew beer like a chef can create cuisine. The brewery is his lab, and he uses a range of local ingredients (think forest blueberries and spruce tips) and different types of barrels to create unique flavor profiles and interesting brews.
Ironically, Downingtown’s Victory Brewing Company was an early inspiration for Pilkington. After falling in love with Golden Monkey, among other Belgium style beers, something clicked and he realized that beer can be interesting in many ways. Plus, he liked the whimsical label on the Golden Monkey bottle.
Fast forward to the present, Pilkington and the Põhjala crew are making hyper-local, unique beers that we loved to drink while we were in Tallinn. Although their flagship beer honors the long winter nights, we’d be happy to drink it any night of the year.
Beer lovers can find Põhjala beer in Estonia, Finland and Sweden, though the brewery has previously shipped their beer to Florida, Maine and New York for special events. Pilkington’s goal is to have “anyone in the world pick up a Põhjala beer and discover Estonia and get a positive impression.” If we’re lucky, we’ll be able to pick up a bottle of Öö in Philly sooner than later.
Check out the 2foodtrippers YouTube video to see their interview with Chris Pilkington and get a peek inside Põhjala Brewery.