Local food and artisan microbrewery products

For over ten years, Panimoravintola Huvila and Savonniemen Oluttehdas Oy, located in Savonlinna’s Savonniemi, have offered microbrewery products and local food on the Saimaa shore. Huvila is the only brewery restaurant in Eastern Finland serving local food and beer – and has the smallest carbon footprint in the world – or so the brewmaster claims. Jussi Hukkanen, the CEO, restaurant owner, master brewer and errand boy all in one, reveals the secrets of brewing and the success story of Huvila.

‘We only brew two kinds of beer: good and bloody good.’

With these confident words, the owner and brewmaster Jussi Hukkanen begins the tour of the Huvila brewery.  He pauses to give weight to his words. With a twinkle in his eye, he checks the reaction of his audience: some bursting into laughter, others displaying a slight smile at his words.

In reality, Hukkanen brews mainly top-fermented beers or ales at Huvila. Based on his own taste preferences, the brewmaster uses the British brewery tradition as his model, which centres heavily on ales. Huvila beers are real ales, brewed using open fermentation and exposing the beer to air. This generates the desired bacteria, starting the controlled ‘spoilage’ in the product. The term ‘controlled spoilage’ is a compromise as the brewer objects to the word spoil, which is not what it is in reality.

‘Closed fermentation is a modern thing. It’s too clean. It’s a little like trying to age Parmesan in a fume chamber. Microbes are part of the process.’

Hukkanen has created his own recipes. While he has never brewed a bad batch, he keeps fine-tuning his methods. He reminds us though that nothing happens by accident. This is a process where, as far as is possible, everything is standardised. Nothing is left to chance. As a result, their products and processes have an artisan feel.

‘But there are things we cannot do anything about. After all, we don’t have any laboratories here. But that’s the nature of our beers. They don’t taste the same every time, which is intentional,’ Hukkanen explains.

Huvila is a microbrewery in the true meaning of the word. The brewing takes place in one room with a total production of some 15,000 litres. The beer used to be brewed for the guests of Panimoravintola Huvila only, but since summer 2014, Huvila brewery products have also been available in Hukkanen’s new restaurant, Passio, in Helsinki. The products are not meant to be stored, as their taste changes radically over time. They won’t spoil, but their taste is no longer the same as that of the original product, which is why it would be a different product a year later.

‘In other words, if we make the best beer in the world, you have to come here to drink it,’ Hukkanen smiles.

The brewmaster likes to tell people that Huvila serves the beer with the smallest carbon footprint in the world. This claim has been neither tested nor proven, but Hukkanen stands firmly behind his words.

‘I can’t see how anybody could make beer with a smaller carbon footprint. Our beer is made here and mostly consumed here as well.’

Local food from Southern Savo

In addition to microbrewery products, Huvila serves local food in a casual dining atmosphere. Local food was not the starting point when Huvila opened more than ten years ago, because the concept of local food was unknown at the time. But from the beginning, Huvila wanted to serve high-quality food crafted with care. This was and still is evident in the fact that, as far as possible, Huvila avoids using industrial products and most of the fresh ingredients are home-grown.

Over the years, the local fool trend has caught on and Huvila followed suit. Today, Huvila’s menu boasts goose raised only a hundred kilometres away, wild boar from Kivikkonotko at about twenty kilometres’ distance, and fish caught in Saimaa.

However, with small suppliers, the local food concept can be a challenge at times. Another problem is seasonality: Savonlinna’s travel season is focused on summer and especially on the Opera Festival in July, which raises the demand considerably for Huvila’s specialities.

‘We try to use as much local food as possible, but the demand is just crazy in July and it would be suicidal to promise that everything is local,’ Hukkanen says, watching the restaurant guests on Huvila’s sunny terrace.

On the other hand, what exactly constitutes local food? A lot has been said and argued, but nobody has been able to give a complete definition of local food. As an example, Hukkanen mentions reindeer, which is considered to be local food in Huvila because that is its definition in Helsinki as well. But eggs from Joensuu do not count as local food here as you can get eggs closer to home. For this reason, Hukkanen thinks that freshness and quality of food are more important.

Even though he believes that local food production in Southern Savo is getting better all the time, he wishes that the supply would grow faster and the producers would be more proactive in their marketing efforts.

‘Very few of them come and offer us their produce. Farmers could market themselves a little better by saying “this seems to be a good restaurant and I would like to sell my produce here. I think I’ll call and ask,” for instance.’

Hukkanen believes that when it comes to food, people’s attitudes have improved. He has seen that people appreciate local food and food quality much more than they used to. Today, guests expect more than to be served a plate and have it removed afterwards. People like to eat in restaurants, because it offers something a meal at home does not. It is a shared social moment, an event rising above everyday life. To stop to enjoy your food is a small celebration.

It is Hukkanen’s wish that people would once again appreciate entrepreneurship, artisanship, freshness and plants. These are the values he bases his own restaurant on.

‘Big chains ruined this appreciation, destroying small-scale production, small businesses and artisanship.’

‘No way to make a living’

Brewing is one of the oldest industries in the world, but Finland has relatively few microbreweries. Microbreweries have suffered the same fate as many other industries: the big companies bought them up and closed them down, killing the concept of local. Only big players remained.

This situation lasted a long time – until the early 90s when the industry started showing some signs of life. There was a brief revival of microbrewery production and volume. At one time, there were nearly forty microbreweries in operation. But then came another tumble.

‘There simply wasn’t enough know-how or skills, and then the whole field got muddy. People got the impression that microbreweries produced low-grade stuff,’ Hukkanen offers as his opinion.

So the first train left and a second train brought those who had survived and knew how to produce high-quality products. Their number stayed below twenty for a long time. Over the last few years, their appreciation has grown and inspired the opening of new microbreweries.

This growth does not, however, cause any animosity between big and small breweries. On the contrary, they like to work together. They do not pose any threat to each other, so it makes sense to collaborate. Hukkanen sees the reason for this in the smaller production volume of microbreweries, even though they offer a wider choice of tastes than large breweries. Hukkanen has the same focus with his six products – five beers and one cider.

Huvila has been brewing beer since 2002, but the real story started a few years earlier. Hukkanen met the three other Huvila partners on a brewing course in 1996-1997, during which the idea of a brewery restaurant started to take shape. The initial plan was to open a restaurant in Töölö, Helsinki, but that project failed to take off.

Then they found Huvila in Savonlinna. The building originates from 1912 and had previously served as a mental hospital. The building had stood empty for years and had fallen into disrepair. However, Hukkanen and his partners saw an opportunity and went to the city hall to talk about their idea. There had been several attempts to rent Huvila from the city by one enterprise or another – a yacht club, a restaurant, a hotel – but all had been denied due to a lack of resources.

Surprisingly enough, the idea of a microbrewery and restaurant got the decision-makers interested and the city council had Huvila renovated. Hukkanen believes that it was the unique quality of their idea that prompted the city to join their project.

‘We have delivered what we promised in order to sell our idea: a unique place, high-quality food and service along with microbrewery products. This is the only brewery restaurant in Eastern Finland. The idea was so unique that we could promise media visibility – a promise we have kept.’

The year 2012 saw the tenth anniversary of Huvila, and Hukkanen celebrated by brewing a special beer, which, as an exception to Huvila’s tradition, was a lager.

‘I had to try something different,’ Hukkanen explains with a smile.

The ten-year anniversary was a big deal for both Hukkanen and Huvila.

‘I know that 95% of the locals were expecting us to take the first train back after the first year. The thinking was, back then, that nobody could make a living doing something like that.’

Over the last ten years, attitudes have changed. Huvila has earned its place in the restaurant and drinking culture both in Savonlinna and in Finland.

Buoyed by brewery clubs

Huvila’s terrace is packed with people, with overflow on the surrounding lawn. This is despite the rain that has come down all day, the gloomy sky and the chilly evening. Earlier in the day Hukkanen had posted on Huvila’s Facebook page:

‘Tonight Tuure Kilpeläinen with his band Kaihon Karavaani. Rain or shine!’

The risk of rain does not seem to bother the crowd as it waits for Kilpeläinen to appear on the stage of the Huvila brewery club. People are cheerful; despite the chilly weather you can hear people laughing and talking, glasses clinking.

Then it starts. The gig is on, and right after the first tune it is clear that it could rain cats and dogs and the audience would not even notice. They are here to have a good time. The area in front of the stage is packed with dancers, making it hard to take photos. Further in the background, Hukkanen smiles broadly, watching the audience moving in time with the music in front of the stage and on the terrace. The terrace is open, but no ceiling could contain the rising spirits, and the audience seems to float on a cloud as the show continues into the night.

At the close, Hukkanen is afire, as much as it is possible for a reticent man from Lahti. ‘Fantastic job! That’s in the top 10, and there have been more than 100 gigs on the brewery stage!’ he enthuses.

Huvila has organised brewery clubs for almost as long as it has been in operation. The first club was opened in summer 2003, bearing the name Huvila Terrace Club. After the second summer, the name was settled on: Panimoklubi (‘Brewery Club’). Of all the gigs over the years, Hukkanen remembers best those which were able to raise the spirits of both the audience and the staff. He particularly remembers Don Johnson and his Big Band and Chisu. After tonight, Tuure Kilpeläinen is surely going to join the list.

Fanfares and red carpets

‘We have kept our promises: we have competed successfully, the media is interested and we have created a pretty sexy product, a different and unique brewery restaurant in the Saimaa region,’ Hukkanen says, listing the reasons for Huvila’s success.

Clearly, the Huvila package has hit the spot, as glowing feedback keeps coming in. Even in summers with less than ideal holiday weather, Huvila has generated record returns. Hukkanen often gets direct feedback from the guests who come to personally thank him and comment on the Huvila package, with its local food and microbrewery.

But it is especially the food bloggers who have discovered Huvila and taken it to their hearts. ‘Sillä Sipuli’ and MTV3’s ‘Makuja’ bloggers, among others, have been to Huvila and given it rave reviews. The brewmaster finds the phenomenon baffling.

‘That blogging business has come through only recently. A couple of years back, it had no influence. Or, thinking about my own online behaviour, I didn’t read any blogs back then; I didn’t even know what they were!’

Hukkanen has to admit, though, that it is a flattering phenomenon.

‘It’s a little like when your kids get praise, it’s a similar honour. In a way, I have known that appreciation will come if you keep working and create a good product,’ Hukkanen explains.

The food and drink are not the only things about Huvila that are appreciated by bloggers. A couple of years ago, some female bloggers commented favourably on Hukkanen’s deep voice. This gets our brewmaster visibly embarrassed, and he struggles for words.

‘What can you do?’ Hukkanen shrugs and tries to get us to move on.

About the voice or the flattery?

‘Both,’ Hukkanen blushingly admits.

Huvila and Hukkanen: an inseparable pair?

Huvila is clearly part of Hukkanen, just as Hukkanen is part of Huvila. It is in evidence on a busy evening at Huvila, for instance, when the brewery club is meeting. The brewmaster is present. Not just physically – the man stands out in the crowd even when dressed in black like the rest of the employees. He is clearly well known, as one person after another comes and says hello, exchanging a few words with the brewmaster. He serves at tables, stops to talk to some guests, takes photos, works the bar. Every once in a while he stops, looks around to make sure that everything is OK and allows himself a moment to listen and enjoy the music. But soon somebody will come and want to shake hands with the host.

‘It does tend to be identified with me, and at the same time as it has become part of me.  This is not just a business; this is a calling,’ Hukkanen admits.

Nevertheless, the relationship between Hukkanen and Huvila is not so irreplaceable that one would cease to exist without the other.

‘No – you can’t think like that. You are irreplaceable only if you stick your finger into a glass of water and leave a hole.’

Huvila is a summer restaurant. It opens its doors on Mother’s Day and closes at the beginning of September. When asked what he does in winter, the brewmaster grins and says that he plays ice hockey. Has he achieved every man’s dream: to brew beer and run a restaurant in summer, and to play ice hockey in winter?

‘Well, that’s not the way it works. When the doors close in September, it doesn’t mean that they are closed for me. In February, the brewing begins, and it continues in the autumn as well. This is a year-round job,’ Hukkanen explains in his defence.

His reply might be more believable and may paint a harder picture of his job if Hukkanen was not sitting on Huvila’s sunny terrace sipping Huvila’s own beer and looking out on Saimaa, where a steam ship passes by. Hukkanen’s mischievous grin reveals that he knows full well that things could be worse. It is also true that Hukkanen’s new restaurant, Passio, which opened in Helsinki earlier this year, also keeps its owner busy year round. But supplying Passio with brewery products keeps the brewmaster busy doing what he likes doing best – brewing beer.

Reeta Toivanen