"Make sure you stay overnight" said Karmo, which I took to mean that there was going to be plenty of sampling going on.
Before I did the judging, I went next door to Möku, which is a nice little bar that has recently expanded its beer range. Lauri asked me if I'd like to give his staff a brief training session about some of their new beers, which of course I was very happy to do. Beer culture in Estonia has expanded so rapidly, that more and more beers are appearing on taps and in fridges each month - with the staff needing to know a bit about them. That in itself is refreshing - staff actually wanting to know about the beer they are serving. I think it goes to show that craft beer actually has a personality, with each having its own story to tell. Mainstream generic beers are boring - they all have the same life story - which is not really that exciting to tell the truth. So we had a good chat about beer, how it's made, why it tastes like it does bla bla bla, so much so that I over-ran and was late for my date by half an hour. I could have gone on for hours more.
So I arrived at Karmo's place, and there were already people there waiting for me. It was good to see that the usual photo fit of a home brewer wasn't present here. No socks, sandals and beards, but regular guys including two smartly dressed young educated gentlemen, a biker, a DJ and me. And Karmo - who has a beard and was wearing sandals with socks.
Now I have to admit - I'm not a fan of all home brewed beers. Some are very good, some are passable, but to be honest, most are pretty bloody awful. The people who make them, have to drink them. When you've spent a good few hours brewing and bottling them, you'll drink the sweat of your labours, no matter how it tastes. And what you'll also do - is give some to your friends and ask them to try it. I get a lot of these - with requests of "honest feedback". Most of the time, I'm not entirely honest, but forthright enough to make sure that I don't get any second bottles sent to me.
Life is too short for bad beer. So I take a sip, and if I don't like it, then it gets poured down the sink. Which is interesting in itself. I told an Estonian friend that I pour the beer away if I don't like it, and he looked at me shocked. "But it's free" he said. "How can you waste something that is free?" he asked. Whereas my viewpoint is that if I didn't pay for it, then I'm losing nothing by pouring it down the drain.
So when I was told that there was going to be over 20 different beers to try, I tried to work out how I was going to throw away the beer I didn't like - when I had the guy who made it sitting right in front of me.
As it turned out, it was pleasantly suprising. There were 28 different beers, which at times was a bit of a chore - because not all of them hit the mark. Some of them were not, how shall I put it...."to my taste". As all the narrative was in Estonian, I did my best to work out the ingredients, and in one beer I was sure there were bananas. A banana IPA I wrote on my tasting notes. When I submitted my feedback, I was given looks of astonishment and hilarity. "What sort of bananas do you have in England?" They all laughed. The beer didn't have any banana in it at all. Shame it tasted like it did. Drainpour!
But on the whole the beers were good. Some were excellent, with one Imperial Black IPA in my opinion, being good enough to sell to the public. It was the overall winner out of the bunch, with an IPA brewed by the same brewer coming in second place.
I left Tartu smiling, not only because I had tasted some nice new beer, but because I managed to sell six copies of my book to these home brewers too. That's the hotel sorted then ;)
So what's happening in Tallinn? What's not happening in Tallinn is more to the point. Talk of the town this month is that a new beer bar called Pudel has opened up in the up and coming area of Telliskivi. I'm lucky enough to be co-owner of it, and once again I'm glad that I decided to enter the beer industry when I left University, not sell washing machines like my old man wanted me to. The great thing about being involved in small scale bars, is that you get to pick and choose what brands you sell. If you're boring and want to make a sure fire profit, you go with the major brands, and basically sell your soul to them. If you are a bit more gung ho, and want to work hard at making a profit by being non mainstream, then you get to play around with some interesting beers, hoping that the fact you are being different will bring the punters in.
Pudel has its foot firmly in the non mainstream camp. It has the largest selection of beers in Tallinn (read, Estonia) with many of the brands making their debut. Punk IPA, Baltic Frontier, Thornbridge beers are all on tap, and there are world class ratebeer 100/100 beers on the shelves in the name of Mikkeller George Cognac Edition, Nelson Sauvignon and Trappist beers from Rochefort, Achel among others.
One of the other co-owners, also happens to be a brewer. Not a kitchen or garden shed brewer, but a full on "we're gonna make so much we're gonna keg it" brewer. They call it Põhjala, which means Nordic Territory in English. They've been putting together a few brews, sampling it (I get bottles too, and I'm pleased to say that I don't have to drain pour them), re brewing it, sampling it over and over to ensure it's ready. Ready for what? Bottling and kegging with the intention of becoming the first Estonian micro/gypsy brewed beer available to buy in Estonia. They are so intent on becoming the best, that they learnt and borrowed resource from the best. Two of the brewers spent a week at Brewdog, and then Brewdogs brewer came over to Estonia to help them put together the beer.
Next Friday, the 8th of Feb in Pudel bar, the boys will be having a launch night for their new beer. It's called ÖÖ, which means Night in English. It's a Baltic Imperial Stout coming in at 9,5% abv, and like the name suggests, is a black as the night. Look out for the Facebook invitation - the brewer from Brewdog will be coming over too, so it's a great chance to try the beer and ask questions to the guys who created it. The very cool thing is that the beer is packaged in Key Kegs, which uses compressed air to dispense. No gas enters the beer, which means you get to taste it just as the brewer intended.
Just to whet your appetite for the 7th, I managed to blag myself a bottle, and reviewed it.
It's a 33cl bottle (50cl at 9,5% abv would be too much), with a striking design on the label. It depicts a black night, with twin, vanilla coloured moons, reminding me a bit of Tatooine's binary sunset in the Star Wars film.
The pour is nice and thick, and it is at this moment when you realise that the beer is as black as the label. It comes out like a sludgy engine oil, building a thick creamy foam which is coffee cream in colour. It's the sort of head Guinness drinkers like to boast they can rest a penny on top. Except this one didn't require any nitrogen or 181 seconds to pour.
The aroma is as you would expect (if you are experienced at this game) of a Baltic Stout. Loads of roasted scents such as burnt oak, coffee, caramel, liquorice, spice, raisins and alcohol. It's worth pointing out, that the head has diminished from its original state, but is still there, almost like a vicars collar on top of the beer.
The taste is similar to the aromas you pick up - but there is a little sweetness too, almost like black syrup or molasses. It's not overly bitter, and any bitterness that is picked up is mostly from the malts rather than the hops. It's nice and smoky, and has a good depth of flavour, starting with smoke, which turns into chocolate, which then turns to dark fruits. The alcohol is there, but it's very well hidden, making this an easy 9,5% beer to drink.
The finish is smooth, but also a little salty. I'm not sure if this salt is intended, as it gives a little medicinal saline finish to the beer - which doesn't really fit in with the rest of the flavour portfolio. I'm not talking sea water salt, but just a little hint towards the end. Normal people probably won't notice it at all. Such is my curse for being a geek.
The overall impression of the beer is that it's very good. It's up there in style with such luminaries as Mikkeller Black Hole, and Brewdog Alice Porter (which maybe even had the same brewer). Of course the real success story of this beer will be its loyal, Estonian fans. Estonian beer geeks have always been hunting for that really good beer made by one of their own, and now they have one. There is talk of more styles coming from them, including one called "Topelt Nelson", which is a dry hopped IPA using the Nelson Sauvin hop. Looking forward to that.
So, if you want to check out the new bar, and also check out the new beer, and also check out the brewers - then put a date in your diary/iphone/Samsung for the 8th of Feb. Check out Pudel Baar on Facebook for further updates. This stuff is great in bottle, but I suspect it will reach another level on tap.