Finland’s Mr Real Ale is worried about Brexit

With an extra week’s wait in Dover, and another week stuck in Finnish Customs, there would be no time left to sell the beer in my pub, says Thomas Aschan, who started serving British real ale in the Helsinki area in the mid-90s.

After almost 25 years, you can say this thing has some history behind it. A handful of publicans in the Helsinki metro area have been selling real ale since the 1990s, virtually without interruption. The pumps dispensing the good British stuff are not only a point of pride for the pubs but something the regulars have grown to rely upon.

Now, with Brexit looming, these places find themselves more attached to the destinies of the British brewing sector than most Finnish bars.

Thomas Aschan organises an annual Real Ale Festival at his pub The Gallows Bird in Espoo, a few kilometres west of Helsinki. He has done the event for more than twenty years, and suspects that his festival – with a selection of 40 cask ales in the best year so far – may be the only one of its kind in continental Europe, or certainly one of very few.

‛My last festival, in January 2019, was subheaded The Brextival, because we thought the UK would be leaving the European Union in March. The future of the whole event felt uncertain. Well, it is still uncertain,’ says Thomas.

With the next edition of the festival scheduled for the first weeks of 2020, he needs to start making the arrangements with British breweries in the coming weeks. Waiting until late in the year would mean no event in January. But in any case, a no-deal Brexit is likely to risk the regular imports of real ale indefinitely.

‛Now I just hope the whole Brexit thing would either be over quickly – at the end of October – and some kind of a deal could be reached as soon as possible after that. Or that the Brits would seek another long extension and just come to their senses at some point.’

Aschan

Thomas Aschan behind the bar at The Gallows Bird.

Even in the best of circumstances, importing cask-conditioned beer to Finland is more complicated than normal beer trade between two countries.

The journey typically takes three weeks: one for the brewery to package products for shipment, another for the delivery to the port of loading, and a third week at sea. If a brewery gives its beer a five-week shelf life, that leaves two weeks for the pub to sell the beer in Finland.

‛This is how it goes when I order the beers through an importer, which is 95% of the time. But if I order directly from breweries, that usually saves a good amount of time. For my festival, I order everything directly, but then I pay both the UK tax and the Finnish tax.’

In case a no-deal Brexit adds two extra weeks to the regular three-week import cycle – one at the UK Border and another one at the Port of Helsinki – the number of days left to actually sell the beer in good shape will come perilously close to zero.

*****

When I went to Espoo to talk to Thomas, I had no particular intention to write a Brexit story. Rather, the idea was to reminisce about the past couple of decades, to hear how it all had started back in the 90s and how Finnish punters had responded to a beer that may seem slightly eccentric to someone accustomed to bog-standard lager.

‛Believe it or not, the first real ale I sold in this pub was not British but Finnish. It came from a new microbrewery in Central Finland called Palvasalmi. They closed only five years later, but just last week I found a battered old pump-clip for their Best Pal bitter’, says Thomas.

In March 1996, the bar at the Old Student House in Helsinki had managed to get hold of a cask of Wells Fargo – the first ever British-imported real ale sold in Finland. Around the same time, the fifth anniversary of a Finnish beer magazine was celebrated with several casks from Fuller’s.

‛I bought one or two casks of London Pride from that import to sell here at The Gallows Bird. A few hours after opening the first one we had nothing left. So that’s where it started for us. We had had British keg bitter on tap for a couple of years on and off but that was the first cask.’

‛Our first Real Ale Festival at The Gallows Bird in 1998 was also probably one of the shortest beer festivals in world history. I had five or six different real ales from Shepherd Neame, Fuller’s and possibly Morland. Again it took just four hours till the last drop was gone.’

Thomas says real ale had a small but dedicated followership right from the start, and it has grown over the years. Although Finns today are generally much more used to beers that are not macro lager, he still instructs staff to ‛warn’ first-time drinkers that they are about to buy a pint that may taste flatter and warmer than whatever they might normally have.

‛My own taste has also developed along the way, or should I say I seem to have come full circle. The first foreign beers I fell in love with were British, possibly McEwan’s Export which became available in Finland in the late 1980s.’

‛Then I had phases where I’d drink sour Belgian beers, bitter American IPAs, or other styles that were even more extreme. But lately I’ve been going back to those subtle malty flavours. It takes a really good brewer to make a delicate UK-style ale with low ABV but enough body and packed with taste.’

*****

We are drinking Rock the Kazbek from Redemption, a new-ish craft brewery in North London. It’s my first time with this beer and this brewery. The UK currently has more than 2,000 breweries. How do you source the beers for the pub and your festivals?

Thomas Aschan: ‛I obviously go to a lot of breweries personally. This one, Redemption Brewing, I visited when I was in London for this year’s Great British Beer Festival. Our regular Finnish importer was taking a summer break and I ordered five of their beers directly from the brewery to tide us over the break.’

‛These days, the number of breweries in London alone is just staggering. A lot of them are good ones, too. The overall quality is much more consistent than even, say, five years ago. You no longer get the kind of nasty surprises you sometimes did then. There are also a lot of beers that are truly outstanding.’

‛Whenever I can I also travel to festivals in the UK. I’ve found a lot of great beers that way. I remember tasting Brewers Gold by Crouch Vale at GBBF back in late nineties, early noughties. That was one of the early golden ales and the judges loved it, too. The same way we also found Dark Star’s Hophead around the same time. It was actually a better beer than it is now.’

‛But I must say some of the major festivals have grown too big for me. The selection is mind-boggling and it’s almost impossible to find all the beers you had marked down as interesting. One of my favourite festival experiences is from Wedmore in Somerset, where we went with my beer club. The venue was a village hall, and when our bus arrived there was a table with Finnish and English flags waiting for us. The range of beers was humanly comprehensible and sourced from local breweries.’

The Gallows Bird in its current location will close in 2021 when the building is taken down for development. You already have another little pub, Captain Corvus, at the Iso Omena mall. And later this year you will open a new brewpub a couple of kilometres down the road in Tapiola. What’s your plan with these new places, and will real ale still play a role?

‛Yes. In the brewpub, we’ll be working together with Ville Leino, who is the brewer at a local craft brewery, Olarin Panimo. He has already brewed cask beer for us on a couple of occasions, and that is something we’re looking to do in the new place, too. We’ll have a 500-litre brewing kit and also a food menu. So those two things are different compared to the pub we’re in now. On top of that, we will of course continue to serve British cask ale just as always.’

Have other Finnish breweries been doing real ale recently?

‛Well, there was long gap after Palvasalmi quit almost twenty years ago. But in the past few years, there have been a handful of brewers around Southern Finland who have supplied us. We have had cask beers from Ruosniemi, Malmgård, Suomenlinna – at least those three. It’s not something they do all the time, but I get it by special request.’

And any other countries?

‛Not really. Only Ireland actually. We’ve had O’Hara’s Stout and Moling’s Red at least once, but that was also a one-off deal.’

When a central Helsinki pub, Kuikka, decided last year to stop serving real ale due to low demand, there was some speculation on an online beer forum that the first generation of beer enthusiasts might be getting too old to go to the pub, and that the young ones no longer cared for cask. What’s your take?

‛I can only speak for my own pub, but we have seen no signs whatsoever of slowing sales in cask beer. We’re able to sell any real ale on our pumps under the three-day limit that I consider optimal. Four days is still okay but towards the end you start to feel it going a bit flat. I have instructed my staff to go down to the cellar every day to taste and smell the beer.’

‛Why does real ale not sell in a particular pub? Sometimes it’s a chicken-and-egg problem – or do I mean a vicious circle? If you can’t shift the product quickly enough it will go bad – and when you sell beer that’s a bit off, even once, you’ll have a hard time selling it next time around.’

So real ale is still going strong in Finland. Any other thoughts about the future?

‛Well, I personally believe that the classics will always be relevant. Once all the fuss we have now about NEIPA and sour beers passes, a new interest towards traditional styles such as British cask bitter will arise.’

‛I belong to the first generation of serious Finnish beer aficionados, and I think we were ahead of our time in many ways. People who started to brew or sell beer or write about beer at the same time I did brought these phenomena – real ale, traditional IPA, and so on – to Finland around the mid-90s. Just a few years earlier, there was not a single microbrewery in this country, all beer imports were a state monopoly and practically all we had was blond lager. So it’s nice to see that our mission is still bearing fruit!’

Text: Teemu Vass (teemu.vass@gmail.com)

*****

Where to find real ale in the Helsinki metro area?

  • The Gallows Bird (Merituulentie 30, Espoo). See above.
  • St Urho’s Pub (Museokatu 10, Helsinki). This is a city-centre stalwart with Fuller’s ESB and a guest beer on hand-pump. Also Finnish food, pizzas and a good selection of tap and bottled beers.
  • Angleterre (Fredrikinkatu 47, Helsinki). Angleterre is a Helsinki restaurant with a long history, in its current incarnation a British-themed pub since 1976. Two hand-pulls.
  • Black Door (Iso Roobertinkatu 1, Helsinki). Another UK-themed pub operating since 1992 and serving real ale since 1998.
  • Viisi Penniä (Mannerheimintie 55, Helsinki). ‛The Five Pence’ opened in 1956 but was transformed five years ago into a serious gastropub with one real ale pump.
  • The Pullman Bar (Rautatientori, Helsinki). A spacious bar on the upper floor of Helsinki’s central railway terminal serves real ale, apart from a few summer weeks.
  • Kitty’s Public House (Keskuskatu 6, Helsinki). A pub in a city-centre shopping gallery has a real ale pump and is part of the same chain as Angleterre.
  • Captain Corvus (Suomenlahdentie 1, Espoo). This tiny pub inside the Iso Omena shopping mall is under the same ownership as The Gallows Bird and usually serves cask ale between Thursday and Saturday, barring the summer months.realale1realale2
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