Wednesday, November 6, 2013

A couple of days on Saaremaa

Saaremaa may not be the most obvious place to visit for a good beer experience, but this rural Estonian island offers a good local beer in addition to many beautiful nature experiences. So, if you're in Estonia and have access to a car, a visit to Saaremaa is highly recommended. Here follows a recount of my own visit to Saaremaa in July 2013.

Remains of an old windmill on Saaremaa. 

The former Eysysla
Saaremaa is the largest and westernmost island in Estonia, with an area of 2,672 km² - making it slightly smaller than Gotland, the largest island in the Baltic Sea. Saaremaa forms the northwest boundary of the Gulf of Riga, meaning that almost half its coastline is along the Gulf while the rest, to the north and west, faces the Baltic Sea.

The easiest way of getting to Saaremaa is to rent a car (or take one of the coaches from Tallinn) and drive southwest from Tallinn for about 130 km to the coastal town of Virtsu. From there you can take the hourly Tuule ferry to Kuivastu, just across the 6 km wide Suur Väin Strait. Kuivastu is actually on the smaller island of Muhu, but Muhu is connected to Saaremaa via a modern bridge, allowing cars and coaches to reach Saaremaa.

Saaremaa has been inhabited for at least 7,000 years and the earliest written records are from the Norse Sagas in which the island is known as Eysysla. In those days Scandinavian Vikings roamed the Baltic Sea for trade or raid but often found themselves under attack by pirates from Eysysla. In one period the island's pirates even raided the southeast coast of what is now Sweden, but in those day part of the Danish realm, earning them the nickname Eastern Vikings (which is probably why the Saare County has a Viking ship in its coat of arms).

In order to pacify the pirates, King Valdemar II of Denmark sent an invasion force to these waters in 1206, building the first castle at Kuressaare as well as one on the mainland, where the Danes settled in what is now Tallinn (the name is probably a corruption of Estonian for "Danish Fortress"). The German order of Teutonic Knights was also spreading north at the time, contesting the territory with the Danes. Under the Teutonic Knights the original wooden castle built by the Danes was rebuilt and named Arensburg, which means "Eagle's Fortress" in old German.

A water-filled moat surrounding the Kuressaare Castle.

In the following centuries, Saaremaa was ruled in chronological order by the Teutonic Knights, Denmark, Sweden and finally, starting in 1706, by the Russian Empire. Though there are buildings on Saaremaa from the Swedish period, most notably the current version of Kuressaare Castle and the Kuressaare Town Hall, most of the old buildings, such as Orthodox churches, are from the time of the Russian Empire. Saaremaa remained part of the Russian Empire until the October Revolution of 1917, after which Estonia and the other Baltic states declared their independence from Russia.

The independence would be short-lived though, because of World War II. In August 1939, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union signed a non-aggression treaty, known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, containing a secret protocol in which the two countries agreed to divide Eastern Europe between them. While the western half of Poland were given to Germany, Stalin secured the rest of Poland, Romania, Finland and the three Baltic states for Russia. He sent in the Red Army to pacify the independent countries and with the exception of three years in the middle of the war, when Nazi troops occupied the area, Estonia and the other Baltic states would be ruled from Moscow for the next fifty years.

In order to better control his new territories, Stalin stole an idea from the Nazis - he deported hundreds of thousand of "undesirables", such as military officers, politicial leaders, authors and journalists, from their home countries and east to Siberia. In return, he moved a large number of ethnic Russian farmers and workers west to replace the natives he had forced out. The tragic result is that today the Baltic countries have large Russian minorities, trapped in countries that treat them like 2nd class citizens.

After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Estonia regained its independence and the island of Saaremaa has seen a growing number of tourists, both domestic and international, visiting its historical and natural sites. The island is also home to a unique beer, brewed by a small brewery and sold mainly locally: Pithla Õlu.

A glass of Pithla Õlu at Kaali Trahter.

Pithla Õlu
Named after Pithla, a small community on Saaremaa about 15 km east of Kuressaare, Pithla Õlu is usually referred to as koduõlu (which means "home-brewed beer") but also as Saaremaa taluõlu (Saaremaa farm ale). It is brewed by Oü Taako, a small farm brewery founded in 1990 and owned and operated by Arvet Väli. Because this is a small business, Arvet Väli doesn't have the time or resources to bottle his beer, so it's all sold on keg and mainly to pubs and restaurants on the island.

Arvet Väli only makes one type of beer, a cloudy (i.e. unfiltered) orange-tinged amber colored ale with a strength of 7.6% abv. Apparently he has used several yeast strains and brewing methods over the years, but always within the brewing traditions from Saaremaa. The taste of the beer reminds me of a really fresh German hefeweizen, with a strong yeast character, a fine lemon-like sourness and a bready malt body with a long fruity aftertaste with notes of apricot and banana. This is a beer I think Schneider Weisse would have been proud of making.

I only managed to find Pithla Õlu at one bar when I visited Tallinn, on Saaremaa I hoped for (and did have) more luck. When I arrived in Kuressaare I stopped by the Tourist Information to ask them about local breweries and they gave me the phone number for Arvet Väli (!). So I called him. With his limited English vocabulary he answered my questions in single terms, yes or no, but he managed to make it clear to me that he didn't do brewery tours, instead he suggested a couple of places that I should visit in Kuressaare to taste his beer. So that's what I did. But let's not get ahead of ourselves, my first stop on Saaremaa was on the way to Kuressaare, in Kaali.

The amazing green water filling the main Kaali meteorite crater.

Kaali is a small community near the middle of Saaremaa, just off the main road from Kuivastu to Kuressaare. It is home to the Kaali crater, the largest of nine meteorite craters found in Kaali. These craters were formed by the largest meteor to hit Earth in "recent" times. Probably around 4,000 years ago a large iron meteor exploded in the atmosphere, resulting in nine large fragments (meteorites) "raining" down over Kaali. The largest fragment may have weighed as much as 80 metric tonnes and crashed to the ground at a speed of 10-15 km/sec, forming a crater of 110 meters in diameter and 22 meters in depth.

This was the last giant meteorite to fall in a densely populated area, and it left traces in old European folklore (Edda and Kalevala) as well as in written sources (Pytheas and Scandinavian Sagas). Today, the serene main crater with its green water (black in the winter) attracts visitors from near and far, spellbound by the formation and bright colors.

Kaali Trahter
For me there was an another reason for making the 3 km detour to Kaali: Kaali Trahter. This cozy tavern, built in stone, has a nice, shaded "beer garden" where you can enjoy traditional Estonian fair and the locally brewed Pithla Õlu, served on draught. The beer tasted much fresher here than the one I had tried in Tallinn, so I ended up ordering several glasses with my meal before the journey continued to Kuressaare.

Kaali Trahter Restoran - a delightful tavern with good beer.

Located on the southwest coast of the island, Kuressaare is the capital of Saaremaa and the western most town in Estonia. With a population of a little over 13 thousand it is also the biggest town on Saaremaa and the obvious place to stay for tourists, even though it means crossing most of the island to get there. It celebrated its 450th anniversary in 2013. In addition to the old and well kept Kuressaare Castle, the town offers visitors a beautiful coastline, a charming old town, several good restaurants and a number of spa hotels, both modern glass and steel constructions and older ones made out of wood and stone.

There are three places in Kuressaare that regularly serve Pithla Õlu, all centrally located and within a short walk from each other.

Dereku Burger
Address: Kuressaare Turg
Located on the small market square in Kuressaare, just across Tallinna street from the Town Hall, this artisanal burger bar claims to serve the best burgers in Estonia. But they also serve Pithla Õlu on draught, which you can enjoy at the tables outside on the market square. Perhaps accompanied by a juicy burger.

Grand Rose Spa Hotel
Address: Tallinna 15
Grand Rose is located a short walk up Tallinna street from Kuressaare Turg and from the outside it looks like any another generic hotel. But it has a nice backyard, with lots of tables and comfortable wicker chairs. Along one fence there's even a row of large, Mongolian-style tents where you can sit inside to take cover from the weather. What really impressed me was the fact that they served freshly smoked fish, and I mean fresh - the fish came warm straight out of the smokery. Combine that with an equally fresh Pithla Õlu poured straight from keg and you have an awesome meal. Definitively one of my best meals in Estonia!

Veski Trahter
Address: Pärna 19
Veski Trahter is Estonian for Windmill Tavern and this cozy restaurant is located in an old windmill, built in 1899 and used until 1941. Massive millstone-like stone tables can be found both inside and outside, adding an extra touch to the place. In the summertime you can even enjoy your meal on the second floor balcony around the outside of the mill, giving you a nice view of the town and the ground below.

I enjoyed a tasty wild boar casserolle dish for dinner though unfortunately they were temporarily out of Pithla Õlu, which forced me to go for an A Le Coq lager. Not quite the same, but still a nice meal at a wonderful place.

Veski Trahter - the windmill tavern in Kuressaare.

Aside from the food and culture in Kuressaare, the town makes for a good base for daytrips on the south and west coast of Saaremaa. I spent one morning driving down the peninsula of Sõrve, which offers both manmade and natural attractions - from the Soviet war memorial at Tehumardi and the impressive Sõrve Lighthouse to rock sculptures and geological features along a beautiful coastline.

So, if you have a couple of days to spare, do consider heading out to Saaremaa and spend a night in Kuressaare trying the local beer and freshly smoked fish.

Local birds oogling my dinner at Veski Trather.

For more photos check out these Flickr sets from Kaali and Saaremaa.


  1. Great first chapter! I've been looking forward to this.

  2. Good article. I have visited lovely Saaremaa on a number of occasions - the first being in 2007, when I stayed in the tiny village of Kihelkonna. No pub there, but the little yellow shop sold Saaremaa Õlu, a bottled beer at 11% ABV. Heady but a cracker. When I returned in 2012 the beer was no longer available. I agree about Pithla Õlu, though. I have been back twice since, but there's no sign of Saaremaa Õlu.

  3. Thanks for the tip on Pithla Olu. The Grand Rose had it in some kind of special bottle. Veski told me they were out. Then the server thought a shipment had just come in. Seemed like it was from a tap I noticed as I left.