“For the love of beer”
In part one of my interview with Antti from Ruosniemen Panimo, we discussed the brewery’s origins, the Finnish brewing scene, and the value of collaborations. Here in part two, we talk about being a craft brewery, beer festivals, the power and responsibility of bar staff, and the Alko situation.
Do you call yourself a craft brewery?
It’s a bit difficult to define what is a craft brewery, but we really do the brewing by our hands, so it’s very manual work, so I can say it’s a craft brewery in that sense.
And also, one part of craft brewing is always the variation in quality, and variation in taste between batches, and we have had a share of that in the past, but at the moment I think that our main products, the quality is quite stable now. We actually threw away one batch totally, last spring, that was terrible.. but it was contaminated, maybe it was lactic acid or something. It was not sellable..
Did you think about experimenting with it, or you just didn’t have anything to store it in?
No, we just decided to empty the tank and not waste any more energy for that batch, just brew a new one. Because it’s a long process always, when you start to brew. It’s 8 to 10 hours, the brewing day. Then you add the yeast, and it’s maybe 3 days for our ales, for fermenting, and 4-5 weeks of secondary fermenting or conditioning, so it’s a 6-week process almost, for every batch. So if you see after one week that it’s not good, you don’t want to have it any more, just empty the tank and give free space for the next batch.
And for our reputation, it’s good that we don’t sell anything which is not good, because we are a small brewery, and if the bars have an idea that our brews are not good quality, we won’t sell anything anymore, because the word spreads. These restaurant workers and bartenders, they discuss, and if they say that Ruosniemi don’t brew anything good.. a bad reputation is a bad thing in this business. There’s one brewery in Finland who had a bad start, let’s say, and the reviews for the beers were quite bad, and it’s difficult for them to tell people that we don’t brew those any more, that we have better brews now – and they have, actually they have quite good beers now. It’s difficult to change the mindset of customers.
How do you see the festivals here? There’s quite a few during the year, do you think it’s helping to convert people, to bring in a new audience? Or is it just preaching to the choir, that it’s only going to be people that are into beer anyway that are going to turn up?
It depends on the festival. If you think about SOPP in Helsinki, that’s a great festival I think, it’s the biggest. This year it was bigger than ever, because of these new breweries, and next year it will be a lot bigger too. But the location, on the railway station..
And the weather..
And the weather. And also there’s free entrance, so people can walk in and see what’s happening and walk out if they don’t like it. So for the masses, it’s a very important element to get to know those beers.
The beer expo, on the other hand, that was mostly professionals, or people who are into beer anyway, so it wasn’t really educational. But for the brewers they are quite nice events, we see other breweries and other people and friends, and we get to know the community. They are a lot of fun. This summer we have had two more festivals, one small festival here in Helsinki with only the small breweries, in one bar in Toukola, and also in Jyväskylä there was one festival with a similar approach, they only asked five or six of the smallest breweries in Finland to come and introduce themselves and bring beer. So yeah, good festivals.
How is the financial situation working out? Are you making money from it, are you spending money on it?
We are making money, but we don’t pay any salaries, you have to keep that in mind always. So, we are making money, we can invest in new equipment but still we don’t pay any salaries. The situation changes immediately when you pay something for somebody..
So it’s officially a hobby.
Yeah, in that sense.
For making that much money that we can afford to hire somebody, we need to have more capacity, definitely. We do 10,000 litres this year, but we need to go up to like 40,000 to pay the salary for one guy, and for selling that much beer we need to go to bottling maybe, and that’s also a big step for us, and we’re thinking how to do it now. Because of course, you know the rules here in Finland.
There’s a lot of rules! Selling is difficult, I guess..
It’s difficult yeah, but if you have a product of under 4.7% alcohol, then you can sell it in the supermarkets, and then it’s easy. For example if we bottle our Sihteeri, then we can go to a supermarket and ask if they want it, just like we do with the bars now. But if we have a bottling of over 4.7%, then it has to go through Alko, or to restaurants of course, they can buy bottles too.
But if you go to Alko, then it’s a very difficult journey to get in, you have to have a bottle maybe a year before you get a contract from Alko — a bottle with all this labelling and the real product in, because they want to have an analysis and a taste — and then there’s a long waiting time before they decide if they want to have it or not. And then if they want to have it, they make a contract with very large production demand, so for us it would be maybe too much. So it’s a bit difficult at the moment. Really really difficult, yeah. These stupid rules in Finland! And also, they’re planning to change the limit now..
I’m hearing about 3.5%..
Like in Sweden, yeah. But in Sweden, on the other hand, the Alko there (Systembolaget, the Swedish alcohol monopoly), it’s far more open than the Finnish version, so they can actually sell local beer in local Alko, like it should be. But here, no. If we sell our beer to Alko, Alko needs to guarantee that you can get this beer in any Alko in Finland. It doesn’t matter if you’re in Helsinki or in Lapland, you need to get that beer because it’s on Alko’s list. So, local beers for local Alkos – it doesn’t happen here, but in Sweden it’s possible, that’s what I’ve understood.
(Note: this conversation happened a few months ago, since when there’s been some changes in the conversation at government level; pending/draft legislation should allow breweries to sell direct to the public. This will likely only apply to products below the magic 4,7% threshold. Helsingin Sanomat recently had an interesting article on how Beer Hunter’s in Pori is working around the existing limits)
A PAUSE, as we overhear a guest at another table discussing Ruosniemi’s beer..
It’s always funny to hear somebody talking about our brew in some other table..
What kind of stuff do you hear?
I haven’t heard any very bad things, usually they are quite nice. We’ve done that a lot, that we go to bars and buy our brew, and ask for comments from the bartender, especially in the beginning. But now the bartenders start to know us, it doesn’t happen any more. We did that in the beginning and we got good feedback usually. But we always revealed ourselves to them.
Bar staff are really a crucial part of the chain. The point of contact for the customer is not the brewer, not the producer, it’s the guy behind the bar. If people don’t know what they want to drink, they’re really crucial in terms of educating people, or guiding people to a choice.
Yeah, and they all should ask that, what kind of beer you like, with some easy words. If they use words like IPA, people don’t understand that, they should ask if they want to have light or dark, or very heavy-tasting or light-tasting beer, or hoppy or bitter beer – not hoppy, but bitter is an easier word always, and fruity, malty maybe, yeah. Use those words so people know.
I think that doesn’t really happen much.
Maybe Kaisla is quite good at that, some people at least.
But I guess the customer needs to ask, and already you have to know how to ask – “i’m new to this, I don’t really know what an IPA is or whatever, can you explain something to me.” And somebody who doesn’t know probably won’t even ask something like that, they might say “can you recommend something?”, and the barman will say “what do you usually drink?” and it doesn’t go anywhere.
It’s quite funny that, also in SOPP festival, you get all that, “give me a big beer” requests. Ok, which type of beer you like? Some people do that. “Large beer please”. Good choice!
It’s funny, if I go to a party and bring a couple of bottles of my homebrew, almost always the first question is “how strong is it?”. It’s not what style or what does it taste like, it’s what’s the alcohol percentage. I don’t know if that’s the most obvious thing to ask, because it’s often the only measurement that’s on the bottle.
Yeah, it is, and maybe it’s quite important for us here.
Yeah, that’s true.
I hear that question too, but it usually contains the background thought, “is it too strong for me?” Some people want to have very light beer, they want to have something 4, 5, 3 percent, they don’t want to drink anything heavy, so that’s when I hear that question. And also, I hear that question when they want to not have like a 9, 10 point something. So if the alcohol is somewhere between 4 and 6, you usually don’t really hear that much. But if it’s very light or very heavy, or strong, you hear those. For example, the Sihteeri, it’s 4.1%, so it’s very low in alcohol, Many women liked it. I understand, it’s quite low in alcohol too so you can have a big glass and not get that drunk.
I guess Sihteeri is quite accessible in a way, the taste doesn’t overwhelm you.
No, and the bitterness – the hops – is difficult for people who don’t drink anything else than lager. It does have a very low amount of bitterness, a very low amount of hops, but some other tastes, sweetness and spices. So it’s very drinkable, very easy to approach.
How have you been planning your recipes?
These two guys who live in Pori, they usually do our test brews, with these same small kettles that we had in the apartment here in Espoo. But they are very enthusiastic with all these special brews, they read a lot of forums from the US, from the brewers, and they try to find something new, something interesting, and they usually do one to two test brews, with some recipe, and then we try to scale it up to our size of 500 litres. It’s a difficult task because it doesn’t really scale linearly. For the small size you need a lot more malts than you need in the big size, for example. So it’s a lot of guessing, a lot of learning by doing. But the basis of the recipe comes from the test brews, always.
For example, at the Nøgne Ø tasting, the guy said that they don’t do any test brews, they always go for the big size
Yeah, i was kind of amazed by that. Confident, I guess.
Yeah, and their size is a lot bigger than ours.
Do you do any advertising outside of facebook?
No, we don’t need to, because we’re selling everything we produce. We don’t need to do more than calling, “Hello, this is Antti, do you want to buy beer?”
Haha, and just go through the phone book..
Yeah. We have this customer base of maybe, how many bars now? 25 maybe, mostly in Helsinki, but also in Tampere and Pori, and a few bars in Lahti and Kouvola and some cities. So we make a call around of the bars and see if they want something, and usually they want that much that we can sell. So yeah, it’s going well now, but if we produce more then we need to think how to do the advertisement and marketing, and also logistics will be an issue in the future. Becaue we are here in Helsinki, so it’s very difficult to bring beer from Pori to Tampere in the weekdays, for example.
AND THEN we came to the end..
So, thank you for meeting me.
It’s good to meet people who are into beers. It’s marketing for me too, of course.
You sold one!
Usually these beers, when we bring them to restaurants, they dry out very quickly, so it’s difficult to tell people which bar has our brew, because we don’t really know if it’s in the tap yet, or if they’re out of it, so it’s difficult to follow sometimes. We want to inform people, but we actually don’t know, so we need to visit the bars and see if they have it, and then we write something to facebook, that this bar has it, and they bought from us, and they should have it in the tap in the next few days.
Are there bars that make it easier, or harder, to do that?
Some bars, they tell us when they tap the beers, so that’s easy then to write something about that to facebook.
I’ve been trying to track a few of the bars and the brewers on social media, and i notice… the Black Door comes to mind as a place that is pretty active in terms of telling people when something new comes on tap. They seem to be particularly good at it, “today we have this” and there’s a photo of the tap.
Yeah, especially real ales. They have two taps of real ale now. Do you like real ale?
Me too, yeah. Many people don’t like it.
I don’t know, if people have bad experiences of it..
Maybe it’s that they are not used to it. It’s warm and it doesn’t have any carbonation, and that’s very difficult for some people. But I’ve also had very bad real ale, in England for example, I had a tour in breweries in Suffolk and Norfolk, near Norwich, we visited maybe 9 or 10 breweries there, with my friends some years ago, and, oh, some beers were terrible, even straight from the brewery.
Yeah, not good. But when it’s good it’s very good, so it depends a lot about the bar, how they’re keeping it. It’s a difficult scene. But it would be a good scene for us, because they actually put it in the keg right after the main fermantation, so all the conditioning is done in the keg.
So your work is done a lot more quickly then..
Yeah. They don’t need the space for conditioning, the big tank. So for storage, it’s a good way to do beer.
One last question: can you very briefly say, why are you doing this?
For the love of beer, of course. But also for the idea that a guy needs to do something else in his life than writing reports, that’s the stuff I told you before, so something meaningful.
And of course, we always wanted to brew beer that we like to drink ourselves, so we don’t want to sell out, in that sense, so we could produce beers which don’t taste that much of anything, and maybe sell more, but no, it’s not our style. And maybe craft brewing is about tasty beers anyway, so if we would produce some simple lagers, maybe we don’t sell them, and maybe these bars wouldn’t want to buy them.