For Anchor’s latest Zymaster Series release, brewmaster Mark Carpenter captured a souvenir from his recent vacation to Saaremaa, an Estonian island. There, Carpenter discovered a local, unfiltered ale brewed with native yeast similar to spicy, fruity Belgian varieties. Naturally, he smuggled a sample of the yeast back to the States and brewed Saaremaa Island Ale, a new beer teeming with banana, bubblegum, light pineapple and peppery spice. Last week, Carpenter filled me in on how he stumbled upon the island beer, and how exactly one travels with brewing yeast in tow.
Tell me a little bit about how you found yourself in Estonia.
My wife likes to plan trips now and then, and she likes to pick places where there aren’t many tourists, so she chose Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. Being a brewer, I immediately started looking for breweries in the area, but there wasn’t a lot of information. I had a number of beers from Lithuania and Latvia, and there were some dark, interesting beers, but nothing as interesting as what I eventually discovered in Estonia.
Where did you discover the Estonian beer?
We were working our way up to Estonia and went to Saaremaa Island, a big island with only one town; the rest is very rural. We visited a farm with a sign that said they sold special mustard. They had this beer there that they said was from the island, which they use to make their mustard. I tasted the beer and thought it was interesting.
What was interesting about it?
It was a very pale beer and unfiltered. The same color as most of the lagers, but it had this wild yeast flavor. You could compare it to saisons, if you had to pick.
Where you able to find out anything about the brewery?
I didn’t talk to anybody [about it], because there’s limited English in the countryside. So, I didn’t visit the brewery. I had a hard time finding it, and eventually just gave up.
Did you come across the beer again?
A couple of days later I went into a bar and ordered the beer. The bar was actually part of a cultural center—that’s what attracted me to it. They filled the beer in a Coke bottle and I took it away. I thought it would be fun to bring [the yeast] back. When you talk to brewers about Baltic countries, they think, ‘Oh, that’s Baltic porter and Russian imperial stout country,’ but I didn’t run into any of those.
So how exactly do you bring a Coke-sized bottle of beer back to the States?
I didn’t want to check my bag, so I had to get [the sample] to a small enough size for carry-on [luggage]. Most hotels had refrigerators, so I would put it in there every night, and then decant the beer in the morning. Every day I was making it more and more concentrated. Before we came home, I took two little shampoo bottles and filled it [with the sample]. Then I brought it back, and sent it off to White Labs [fermentation laboratory].
What did White Labs find?
It was a combination of a couple of wild yeast strains, a mix of different yeasts that produce the flavor.
Now that you’ve brewed Saaremaa Island Ale, do you have any future plans for the yeast?
Right now we don’t have any plans for another beer with that yeast. But, I think it could work in a Belgian farmhouse style—after all, the beer’s an Estonian farmhouse style that they claim goes back hundreds of years.[Lighthouse image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons]