As you may have noticed, we heart beer. After a long plane, train, or automobile trip, there’s nothing better than dumping your bag and heading out into the newness of your destination to taste a cold, frothy glass of unfamiliar beer, preferably on a patio from which you can people watch. We’ve drank beer together in 31 countries, territories, and city states around the world (and we’ve individually imbibed in many others when not traveling together), and have no intention of slowing down. Which is why I was excited when, on our flight from Amsterdam to Tallinn, I picked up the Estonian Air in-flight magazine to find an article about Estonian live beer.
Although live beer, or farm beer, is a symbol of Saaremaa, an island off the west coast of Estonia marking the border between the Gulf of Riga and the Baltic Sea, farmers throughout the country have brewed their own live beer for special occasions for hundreds of years. In the 1940s, the Soviets introduced collective farming, which essentially crapped on the farm brew industry, destroying not only independent family farms, but also the hops, barley, and rye needed to create the strong, pure live beers of the past. In the 1990s, with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the farmers of Saaremaa began to brew live beer again. Today, there are over one hundred Saaremaa farmers brewing what is known as farm beers or live beers, which haven’t been filtered or pasteurized and contain live yeast. As they only last a few days without refrigeration, and understandably can’t be shipped long distances, live beers have limited marketability. Outside the Saaremaa beer festival every July, only one of the islanders sells their live beer — Pihtla — and it’s only available outside of Saaremaa (and only in Tallinn) in summer.
On our first full-day in Tallinn, we decided to track down the Pihtla. I’d never tried live beer before, and the Estonian Air article had warned it often causes stomach upset. Why I was still set on finding the live beer after that warning, I have no idea (I think it was something like, “the blog! Think of the BLOG!”), but we set out to find Porgu, one of two bars in the capital that stock Pihtla in the summer.
Porgu, like many pubs and bars in that part of the world, is located in the basement of an ancient building, requiring one to climb down steep stone steps before entering a cavernous room with arched ceilings. Despite it’s name (which means Hell in Estonian), it has a cafeteria-esque vibe, with bright lights, long wooden tables, and wrought-iron chairs. We ordered a single pint of Pihtla, and it arrived cloudy, nearly froth-less, and the colour and consistency of orange or papaya juice mixed with milk. I took a sip. It tasted thick and fresh and inexplicably milky, with notes of citrus; like a wheat beer, only more earthy. At 7.6 % alcohol, it will knock you on your ass pretty fast, so I sipped slowly, content to be off my feet after a long morning of walking, and to be trying something so unique and unfamiliar to my palette.
Sure enough, as I drank the live beer, I noticed a funny, slightly off feeling in my stomach. Farmhouse live beer isn’t the sort of beverage you can drink all night, and apparently many people — myself included — can’t make it through an entire pint. It isn’t so much the alcohol content, although that certainly plays a role, but the feeling it creates in your gut, which I can only describe as an avalanche that slowly sinks and rumbles its way down your intestines (I’m doing a good job at selling live beer, right?). I gave up after about 3/4 of the pint, not because it wasn’t delicious — it was, in an unusual way – but because I was beginning to feel its effects and I still had to function for the reminder of the day.
Despite my failure to finish, I left Porgu content that I’d tried something truly unique to Estonia and me. If you’re in Tallinn (or Saaremaa) in the summer, it’s certainly worth the effort to track down a pint of live beer, and may I recommend sharing it with someone? And if you need some sustenance to keep you sane, check out this food guide to Tallinn to track down the best eats!
Have you tried Estonian farm beer, or another unique live beer from around the world? Tell us about it in the comments, or share with us on Twitter or Facebook!