Thursday, June 5, 2014

An Estonian perspective on Impossible Love

My first contact with Estonian beers is a lunch time conversation in Tallinn. One of the local colleagues comments that “British beers are boring, compared to Estonian ones”. That’s an intriguing statement! I start imagining exotic flavours and unexpected combinations. So, when someone suggests a pub night I accept without even thinking.

The appointment is at the door of a lovely brick building. Then my Estonian host enters a code on a small keyboard and the door opens. I wondered if this is what they mean with “less boring”. Aside from the bizarre means of access, the pub is nice and quiet. But the beer offering comes as a little disappointment. Basically, you can only choose between two versions of the popular (and omnipresent) Saku beer: Classic (a pilsner style), and Dark (Tume, in Estonian).

Not very much interested in the pilsner, I go for the dark one. I am expecting something like a dark lager, but when we open the bottle a very nice roasted barley aroma comes out of it. Saku Dark turns out to be a not too bad one. It is dark brown coloured, and tastes of cane sugar, malt and caramel. On the swallow, it has something of the slightly sour but very tasty brown bread they bake in Tallinn. It could be a porter style ale, if it wasn’t for the fizziness, which is a bit off putting at the beginning. But after few minutes I get used to it (or it goes away, I cannot say). Actually, I don’t mind it at all, and I happily order another bottle.

Sadly, my relationship with Saku Dark is doomed to be a one night stand. My Estonian hosts are amazing in their hospitality. Before the meals even start, someone has already ordered a beer for me. A Saku Classic.

Each time I am at the bar saying “Can I have a...” someone puts a glass in my hand before I can finish the sentence. A Saku Classic, obviously. I have to give up. 

As it is impossible to have another glass of Saku Dark during our official meetings, I keep asking for some later beer tastings, until a kind colleague agrees to take us to a place that, according to the hype, offers about 400 different beers.

It is very late and, to be honest, I already had quite a few beers (all Saku Classic, no need to say). I can’t have more. But I like the place, and I don’t want to look ungrateful. Moreover, the other friends are actually quite happy to try Estonian beers and talk about them. So we conquer the only available spot. Unfortunately, it is just in front of the kitchen’s entrance. We agree a nonverbal code with the barmaid: each time she looks at us with hate and contempt, we clear the way for her. 

But that corner is actually a privileged spot to look at the many bottles the pub proudly exhibits on the shelves. My attention is caught by a collection of four. Brown glass, with white monochrome graphic, 19th-century-book-like style but with a dark, grotesque or surreal twist. I can’t read the retro lettering, so, I ask my Estonian friend to translate it for me. They belong to the same Estonian brewery and they all have funny names. My favourite is the last one: “Mad as a cow”, showing a half anatomical, half butchery-ish image of a dissected cow. How adorable! It looks almost engraved. I pass my finger on the bottle and enjoy the feeling, smiling approvingly. The barmaid looks at me with a mix of pity and disgust. And I’m also in her way.

I look at the bottle with genuine affection. I should definitely try it. Honestly, I don’t care about the beer, I just want the bottle. But I really, really can’t have any more drinks. “I’ll be back”, I promise silently to my precious little friend. “I’ll be back and I’ll take you with me to London”. I try to share my admiration with my mates, who reacts quite tepidly. Well, not everyone understands beauty...

Hearing people talking in English, one of the man at the bar joins our group. So we are now completely obstructing the kitchen entrance. I haven’t noticed before how muscular the barmaid is... The guy has just finished a bottle of an imported ale and kindly suggests to try it. [note to myself: when a stranger approaches you in a pub and talks about ales, asking enthusiastically “can I smell it?” might not be the most appropriate thing to do]. 

It is an Icelandic ale that, I discover, are quite popular in Estonia. The beer seems interesting, but it is a brand that it’s not that difficult to find in London, so I’m not really eager to buy one. The same person suggests a visit to the biggest ale shop in Tallinn, a place called (not too imaginatively) the Drink Shop. I take note and thank him.

Before leaving I ask permission to take a few shots of the place. The barmaid, who either doesn’t speak English or, more likely, doesn’t want to talk with me, gives me a look that I interpret as “I couldn’t be less interested in what you do”. I take it as a yes. Then I leave, not before having whispered, “Wait for me!” to my Princess Bottle.

The day after is suddenly summer in Tallinn. Perfect weather for beer shopping! The Drink Shop (which has a quite popular pub attached to it) is not that big, but still offers a lot of choice. I ask the shop assistant, a nice young lady who speaks good English, for more information about the Estonian ales, but, oddly enough, she doesn’t seem to be very much into beers. I pick two or three local ones, two Icelandics, and an Austrian one (mostly for the adorable sea monster on the label). Too many bottles, though. I need to leave room for the special one I’m going to pick up later in the night. 

The only sensible solution is to drink one right away. I choose Gæðingur Tumi Humall IPA that I have actually selected because of the purple label with a very cute skeleton riding a horse. 
We go sitting on some steps in the sun, and open our beers.

I can’t really smell much of mine, probably because of the bottle. Also, can’t really say anything about the colour. The beer is rather bitter at a first taste, but in a pleasant way. It is an American style IPA, with a very strong grapefruit peel tone (which I like). The bitterness gets more intense on the swallow and reminds more of herbs, roots and freshly cut grass. It is very refreshing in such a hot day. However, it is very, very bitter, even by IPA standards, and maybe not everyone would enjoy it. It has a little earthiness in the aftertaste and the bitterness is very persistent. Maybe it’s because I drunk it from the bottle, but it remains on my lips for quite a while, as if I had spent my time sucking at some bitter leaves in a green field. Not a bad feeling.

That night we go to the Hell Hunt, the oldest pub in Tallinn. It is a large, English style pub with some modern touches. On draft they have their own brewed beers. I go for the one that is generically called «ale». The colour is dark amber, with red shades, and has very little head. It smells quite fruity and I expect Belgian style beer. On the first sip, it tastes like cane sugar and very ripe (almost fermenting) plum and grape. It is quite yeasty and sour. It has a certain fizziness tickling the throat in the swallow and an unexpected delicate cocoa hint. It has a not too bad fruit tart sweet aftertaste, but, all in all, I’m not particularly impressed.

After a couple of pints, I convince my companions to go back to the previous day’s pub. I go straight towards the bar. The barmaid is not happy to see me again. With a big smile and a very happy voice, I point at the bottle of Mad as a cow (I am not able to pronounce the actual Estonian name) and ask for two. 

“One to drink, and one to take away.” I specify. She frowns. I keep smiling. She talks with her colleague then disappears in the back of the bar. She comes back with two dark bottles. I start thanking her enthusiastically. She is clearly annoyed. I should stop. Then I notice that the bottles are nothing like I was expecting. They are just plain dark glass with a word scribbled on them with a white marker. Hang on a minute! There is something deeply wrong going on there. I try to stop her while she is opening the first one.

“It’s not the same bottle!” I say, pointing at the one on the shelf. She looks at me wondering what’s wrong with me.
“It’s the same beer” she says, “in another bottle,” like she was explaining it to a very slow child.
“I know,” I say in my head, “that’s exactly the point”. She cannot understand my broken heart. 
“I don’t want it anymore” I say childishly. She has already opened one and looks at me interrogatively.
“Ok, I take that one, but I don’t need the second one.”
“What do you want?” asks the lady, already out of patience. 
“I don’t know. I don’t care anymore. All the others are the same to me.”
“Wait.” She says laconically, and comes back with another dark bottle, the label in Estonian. “This is a good Estonian one.” 

She tries to open it, but I stop her again. I want to bring it to London. If she could have made me disappear with a look I wouldn’t be here writing now. I leave the bar with a glass of Mad as a cow, that I give to one of my mates, and a closed bottle. What an anticlimax...

“Do you want to try it?” My friend asks, trying to cheer me up. I wipe a tear away from the corner of my eye, and  take the glass. It is thick and dark, like a rich stout. So dense that the light can barely pass through. I put my nose in the glass and a lovely smell of chocolate and molasses with just a touch of liquorice greets me. I try it. It’s delicious. It is one of the most harmonic and drinkable stout I’ve ever had. Not so much coffee that you could mistake it for a Starbucks takeaway. Not so strong that you couldn’t handle an entire pint. Impressively balanced, dangerously easy to drink. It is difficult to distinguish the flavours as they cleanly melt into each other. The fact that it has almost no aftertaste is more a compulsion to drink again than a disappointment. It makes me think of all the good things you can find in a farm. And dark chocolate on top of it.

Oh, Mad as a cow, you’re not just a pretty face...

My friend is awkwardly waiting to have his glass back. I think for a moment to pretend not to have noticed. Then I decide that they have put up with me enough in the past days. I give a better look at the bottle I have purchased at the bar: Estonian dark IPA. I don’t even like dark IPAs...

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