If ever there were a country where a strong, dark beer would be most comforting, Finland would be it. It is a country that combines quaint, rustic traditions with a progressive outlook to the future. Finland produces a porter in the Baltic style that is a bit stronger, rich and roasty, and still top fermented in the London tradition. It is produced by the Sinebrychoff brewery of Helsinki.
Like Sweden, Finland has had many restrictive and antiquated brewing laws over the years. Thankfully, many of these laws have now been discarded. Sinebrychoff, or simply “Koff,” takes advantage of this loosening by producing its strong Baltic porter. The beer has been brewed since 1957, and its revival pays tribute to the London-style exports of yesteryear. Could there be a better way to finish off a sauna than with a restorative Koff on a brisk evening? Finland is enjoying an enthusiastic rebirth of interest in craft beers. Both domestic and imports are featured at the very popular Helsinki Beer Festival, now in its fifth year.
Estonia has been brewing beer of some sort for over a thousand years. The first written reference to beer in what is now Estonia dates to 1284. In modern times, political unrest left the country’s brewing industry somewhat shaky until quite recently. Estonia’s brewing industry was in terrible shape just 10 years ago, but two old breweries, Saku and Tartu, founded in the early part of the 19th century, have recovered nicely. The country now boasts a couple of world-class breweries that produce potent and flavorful porters.
New legions of craft beer drinkers in Estonia can now enjoy several strong, bottom-fermented specialties from Saku and Tartu. The porters are hard to come by, but shouldn’t be passed up if available. Both the Tartu and Saku porters are noticeably influenced by central European lager brewing traditions even though the country lies very close to Finland. They resemble the strong lagers of Germany in many ways, and lack some of the roasty character of their ancestor, London porter.
Poland’s Stellar Selection
Of all the Baltic porters, Poland has the best variety and the easiest to acquire, perhaps owing to the country’s brewing history and geographic location. The middle of the 19th century is generally regarded as a watershed for refined brewing technology. Chief among these advances was a more thorough understanding of bottom fermentation and lager beer production, which became the standard method in Germany, Bohemia and Austria. Polish breweries adopted this lager technology from their neighbors (much of Poland was actually under German and Austrian control during this period).
Today, there are roughly 80 active breweries in Poland. They primarily brew pale lagers, similar to German and Czech pilsners, and dark lagers that remind one of a Munich dunkel. Several breweries produce excellent strong porters. These are the truly hybridized versions of the Baltic style, and because of the bottom fermentation, the mellowest.
Be wary; they are the strongest as well, reaching 9.1 percent ABV. Rich with licorice or molasses character and a wonderful maltiness, they are not unlike doppelbocks from Germany. The roasted character is subdued, which allows the malt to shine through, and the brews take on the deep mahogany color of a dark lager.
Poland also has a fairly significant hop-growing region, producing fine Lubulin hops that naturally find their way into some of the porters, adding yet another unique, local and delicious touch.
Eastern European beers are somewhat in vogue these days, so pay attention to the selection at your package store, as some of these beers may crop up due to demand. Versions from Okocim, Zywiec, Kozlak and Dojlidy are available in some markets. All are delicious and well worth exploring.
Whether your idea of enjoying winter is a tough day on the slopes or an evening with a crackling fire, comfort food and a good movie, Baltic porters are just the remedy to warm your spirit. As the snow melts and you switch to lighter beers, cache your leftovers and look forward to next winter.