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On The Market: Estonian Rye Beer

Canadians are no strangers to craft breweries, sophisticated ingredients, and beer with complex flavour profiles. A trip to the LCBO, Beer Store, or any of Canada’s provincial liquor store variations will demonstrate this.

Photo of Põhjala Brewery Tap Room by Renee Altrov (used with a CC BY-SA 4.0 license)

Do you want something earthy with a crisp palate finish to go with a steak or burger? Have a Czech-style Pilsner. Do you want a bitter and spicy sipping beer? An Indian Pale Ale will do the trick. Rich, fortifying goodness for the winter? Try a malty Belgian ale.

For those readers with adventurous palettes who want to try something new, I would suggest an Estonian-style rye beer.

Rye, of course, is a grain that makes for an ever so slightly sour, durable, mature-flavoured loaf of bread. Must leib is fermented rye bread. I’m sure many readers have encountered or heard of people bringing bags of black bread back to Canada in their suitcases. It’s good with jam, butter, cheese, deli meats, fish; or sliced and made crispy in the oven. As in Don McLean’s “American Pie”, rye is a variety of whiskey, too.

But rye beer is less explored terrain in terms of refreshing beverages.

Barley, oats, and wheat were actually the first grains to enter the diet of Estonian people, with rye appearing later, around 500 CE, in the Pre-Viking Age. Beer consumption then started in Estonia in the early Medieval period, especially beer with lower alcohol content, because it was a safe alternative when it was questionable whether water was potable or not. Beer brewing was a DIY operation, made at home and also by monks. Rye is a grain that grows well at high latitudes, in colder temperatures, and even in poor quality acidic soil, so it became a practical crop for Estonians, to make not only bread but beer.

Rye has become a more popular feature on the “grain bill” of IPAs, lagers, and other beers these days. Whereas American rye whiskey must have at least 51% rye content to qualify, a rye beer can fluctuate significantly in the amount of rye it contains, resulting in varied flavours from one brewer to another. A smaller percentage can add spice and positively augment other flavours like citrus, while higher percentages will make for a beer that’s fuller overall, with a characteristic “bready” aroma.

So what’s a good example of an Estonian beer where rye plays a significant role in the final taste?

Though difficult to import, one Estonian rye beer you might want to try if you are in Estonia is Põhjala Brewery’s Rye River. There’s a sweet malty flavour, a peppery edge, and a refreshing carbonation that’s true to the properties of this grain. I would recommend pairing a rye beer with well-seasoned, barbecued pork or chicken.

Another beer from this brewery that contains rye but aligns with their more experimental approach to brewing is Sajand, which was created in commemoration of 100 years since Estonia first gained independence. Põhjala Brewery was started by four friends in Tallinn in 2011 and began operating out of a new facility in the neighbourhood of Nõmme in 2014.

For a refreshing low alcohol content variation, try kali, which is like a “bread soda” made of partially fermented rye bread. In Canada, your best chance of finding it is to look for kvass in the international foods section of a grocery store.

If you’re looking for a Canadian rye beer, try Campfire Rye Ale by Boshkung Brewing Co. (located in Carnarvon, Ontario).

Wherever you may be enjoying that rye beer— terviseks/cheers!

This article was written by Vincent Teetsov as part of the Local Journalism Initiative.

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