Takatalo & Tompuri is a farm and craft brewery in Virolahti in the south-east Finland. They grow barley and oats, and brew fine lagers from their grains. They also treat some of the malt with an elaborate cold smoking process. I visited this farm brewery in July 2017 to see how the grains and smoke end up into glass.
Takatalo & Tompuri Brewery was founded in 2015 by two friends and neighbours, Mikko Suur-Uski and Juha Kokkala. Both of them had herited farmsteads, named Takatalo and Tompuri. They wanted continue farming, but instead of selling the grains they decided to refine them into beer. Mikko is the brewer, and Janne handles the business and distribution.
The brewery’s main market is in grocery stores, which in Finland are allowed to sell only beer up to 4.7 % ABV. Beer stronger than that can be only sold the restaurants and the state owned liquor store chain Alko. In 2017, the brewery aims to produce 100,000 liters, and bring up the sales gradually.
The brewer Mikko Suur-Uski likes lagers, and that is what the brewery mainly produces. He admits that it is kind of crazy to make lagers in a craft brewery. After all, he could brew 40 % more ales in a same time. I feel that lagers suffer less from the 4.7 % ABV limit than ales, especially when the beer is bottled or canned. Perhaps lagers will also express better the essence of the land, or terroir, too.
Farmed by the Brewer
The farms of Takatalo and Tompuri have grown malting barley for generations. Mikko and Juha had careers elsewhere, but then returned to continue the work of their ancestors. Mikko acknowledges that growing malting barley requires a lot of know-how. He used to help his father at the farm, and now regrets that he didn’t ask more about the whys of farming.
Mikko and Juha send their barley to Viking Malt in Lahti for malting, 50 tons at time. Lahti is 150 km from the brewery, so that the malt can be rightly described as a local product. Viking Malt is the biggest Finnish malthouse, and 50 tons is their minimum batch size for base malts.
While in a standard sack of malt the barley typically comes from several alternating farms, this 50 tons comes from a specific field farmed by the brewer. Mikko says that having a large stock of this “single malt” is convenient, as the brews are very consistent.
The malt is of pilsner type and the brewery makes beers which are perfectly fine mainly with one good base malt. The brewery does buy small amounts of of specialty malts. Mikko hopes that in future the emergence of craft malting allows him to have also specialty malts from his own grains. Smaller scale of malting would also allow to experiment for example with heritage barley varieties.
The farms also grow oats for their porter. In 2017 they outsourced rye for their rye lager, but planting rye was planned for the fall 2017.
Perhaps brewery’s Kaski Pils showcases best the flavor effect of the land. Although this pils is only 4.6 % ABV, the beer is very tasty and malty. However, finding the terroir of barley from the taste is difficult. Likely a side-by-side test brews made from the “single” and “blended” malts would reveal the flavor differences.
Before becoming a farmer and brewer, Mikko was a chef, and in that profession he smoked various foodstuffs. Clearly he is passionate about smoke, and not afraid to go into extremes to get best results. When I noted that his malt smoking process sounds very laborious, Mikko laughed and said that he likes smoking things, and further added that anyway the sixteen hour smoking process can be done while brewing two batches of beer.
The brewery’s flagship is Kaski kylmäsavulager (“cold-smoked lager”), for which Mikko smokes part of malt. He uses a cold smoking process, more typically applied for fish. In this process gently smoldering wood chips generate a stream of smoke which is cooled on the way to the smoker. The smoke flows slowly in and out of the smoker, and Mikko stresses that cold temperatures and continuous flow of smoke (as opposed to a closed box smoker) gives smoothest flavor in both food and malt. This cold smoking process does not affect the color or enzyme content of the malt.
During smoking, Mikko checks the process in every ten minutes, for sixteen hours. He mixes malt, add chips if necessary, and makes sure that the wood smolder and doesn’t burn.
Mikko says that the final taste of smoke in the beer is a complex interplay of weather conditions, along with qualities of wood and proportion of smoked malt. He adjusts the process every time to take into account differences air pressure, temperature and humidity. In other words, he smokes differently every time, to get same kind of malt and beer. It took 26 test brews to get everything right: the proportion of smoked malt, temperatures, times, moisture levels and wood quantities go hand in hand and affect both the quantity and quality of smoke.
He is a strict about smoking wood too. He uses 70:30 blend of alder and juniper chips, both of which he has made the chips himself. Alder is from his own forest, and juniper chips are made from old trunks of juniper which he salvaged from land cleared for highway. Juniper is less common smoking wood, but Mikko says that it produces excellent smoke, especially when temperatures are kept low.
Kaski kylmäsavulager is markedly a smoked beer, but an extremely smooth and drinkable one at 4.6 % ABV. Delicate smoke flavor give way to nuances, with harmonious medley of juniper and alder. Obviously the flavour of smoke is not your typical beechwood, oak, or even pure alder. I think this is a great beer after sauna. The beer was nominated the best pale lager in the Best Beer of Finland 2017 competition.
Mikko plans to brew a stronger version of cold-smoked lager that would underline the uniqueness of smoke character further.
Toasted Oat Porter
Brewery’s Kaski Kauraporter (oat porter) was targeted as a seasonal specialty, but it got so popular that now it is made throughout the year. Mikko was surprised to find out that this ale has become popular among older people who have no history of porter drinking. Also this beer is Finnish grocery store strength at 4.6 % ABV.
Raw oats of the farm are toasted to red, and that is the main source of color and toasty notes. So far Mikko has toasted the oats in a domestic wood-fired oven at around 200°C, 4–5 kg at a time, but now he is considering options for larger scale toasting. This beer has a pleasant grainy straw-like taste of harvest with toasted nuts. This is a nice beer with casseroles and grilled meats, but I do hope that Mikko brews also a more robust version of this.