Friday, March 3, 2017

Ölmönger Special: Interview with Sami Keinänen from Hops United

As some - probably most - of the readers know, Finland is a country where you can buy beer with higher than 4,7 % abv only from the national monopoly Alko or from restaurants with serving licenses. It's also legal to order beer from a European online store when we're talking about distance sales: the store organizes the delivery and pays the customs and taxes to Finland. But. Most - I could say almost all - online beer stores abroad only pay the taxes to the country they operate from, not to Finland.

Except one: Hops United in Tallinn, Estonia. The reason behind the exception is that there's a Finn working behind the virtual desk, Mr. Sami Keinänen, Chief Beer Officer of Hops United. Shortly the idea is to sell beer online, deliver it to the nearest R-kioski of the customer and pay the taxes to Finland. The online store started in the end of 2015 and the collection is growing all time. I had a pleasure to meet Sami in person shortly in November and later interview him make by e-mail.

But enough with prologue - from now on I ask some questions and Sami tells the story!

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Hello, Sami! What is your story, in general and concerning beer? How did you end up starting Hops United?

Born and raised in the Arctic Circle in the 70’s. My first experience with beer was in the late 80’s. (Sorry, now you know. I’m sure you knew already.) And there weren’t too much to choose from. All lager, lager, lager. I remember trying different brands, Lapin Kulta, Karjala, Koff, whatever there was available. It was all rather terrible to be frank and I figured beer is just not my thing.

And it was like that until I travelled to Ireland in ‘93 and got in touch with local bitter and real ales. I really liked that and I still enjoy a pint of bitter a lot. I’m a big fan of British pub culture as a whole and actually ended up living in the UK for couple of years, not too far from Young’s Brewery in Wandsworth, London.

Anyhow, fast forward, couple of years ago, we had just finished a wine shop, Vino Nostrum, at a company I used to work at. I figured we might as well create a webshop for beer since I have some experience with online shop, some experience with beers and branding. Although I’m by no means a beer expert. In addition, I’m family man with small kids, who enjoys having a good bottle of Russian Imperial Stout in the evening. There was a problem to be solved.

What's the business idea of Hops United? How does it differ from the other online beer shops?

To begin with, we’d be Finnish company, but as you know, that’s not possible. Our idea is all about the easiness. There are so many choices people need to make on daily basis and we figured that buying beer should be made easy. I’m not saying we’re necessarily there yet. Also, of course, we wanted to provide a sales channel for Finnish craft beer, since it is somewhat tricky to sell your beer in Finland.

Hops provides beer cases like playlists, you do not need to be an expert with IBUs and whatnot. Case of good beers delivered to home door or alternatively to the nearest pickup point (R-Kioski at the moment) in Finland. I feel very much we’re like an independent record label, against all odds. At least in a sense we’re not doing this for the money, and for sure: no one is getting paid 40k a month. This is not a primary business for any of us — at least not at the moment.

Speaking of which, there’s Finland and Finnish alcohol monopoly… where to begin? Many companies go to Estonia in order to avoid Finnish taxation. We are actually the opposite. We pay all the taxes to Finland and we had to go Estonia in order to do so. And this is something what people do not understand. I wouldn’t understand it myself to be frank. We pay exactly the same taxes like Alko does, therefore we really can’t compete with the price. We have a warehouse in Estonia, but if you want to legally sell alcohol to Finland, you need to pay the local taxes.

Lastly, we really take customer care seriously and I’d say we’re doing pretty good job there.

Sami at Õllenaut brewery in Tallinn

The company operates from Tallinn, Estonia and has great Estonian breweries and beers in the selection. Which Estonian breweries would you still like to add to the selection, if there are any?

Obviously Põhjala and Sori would be great additions, maybe some day. We’ve recently added heaps of Pühaste beers of which I’m personally very happy about. Vaat, Tanker, Lehe, Purtse, Anderson.. There are plenty of interesting players in Estonian craft beer scene.

What else than Estonian beers are essential or special in your selection, breweries or beers that really stand out? By the way, is Bell's Brewery in the selection permanently for now? Both Two Hearted Ale and Expedition Stout are top of the art brews and not too easy to get elsewhere, so thanks.

You very welcome, we are equally happy about Bell’s, and especially their Expedition Stout is also personal favourite. Our selection relies on local breweries and Estonian importers. I’m especially happy about our Belgian beers selection. There are gems like Westvleteren 12 & 8, Orval, Rocheforts and other classics. They never let you down, nor they never go out style. We’ve imported some Finnish craft beers but it’s a bit too expensive I’m afraid. I really hope we are able to do that more in the future. Oh, and Ola Dubh. Blimey!

How did beers from The Flying Dutchman end up in the selection? Got the first contact to the brewery through Hops United - that's why I'm asking.

We have a mutual friend with Ronald de Waal who mentioned that he's back in business, so we had a pint together and had a really nice evening. Everything went super smooth and within a week we had a first batch of Flying Dutch on the shop. If all the business would be as easy as it is with The Flying Dutchman..

...and Sami at Tanker brewery in Vaida.

Can we expect changes in the selection or in the way that Hops United operates in the near future? Can you tell us about them?

The biggest update is the Finnish language version which we are releasing in the near future.

One of our biggest challenges is that majority of the people think what we do is illegal. It’s not - unless they change the law in order to "protect people". I hope it helps to communicate these things also in Finnish.

There will be more collection points available, currently we have all the R-kioskis around Finland which is already pretty good.

I would like to order 12 great different beers from Hops United. Recommended by you. Today. What would you put inside my box?

Excellent question! Pühaste Dekadents, Pühaste Humalakoda, Ola Dubh 18, De Dochter van de Korenaar Embrasse, Victory Art Brew Ivan, Mikkeller Beer Geek, Tanker/Van Moll Animal Instinct, Bell’s Expedition Stout, Õllenaut Turbahunt, Rochefort 6, Vaat Jailhouse, Õllenaut Wahtula… a quite stoutish case. Ask me again tomorrow - it'd probably be quite different.

What are the best things in your job as the Chief Beer Office of Hops United? What's worst?

It’s probably easier to start with the worst. Majority of what I spend my time with has to do with bureaucracy, accounting or some sorts of IT-issues. And I’m afraid I’m not the best at accounting. Excel is not really my cup of tea. We report the amount of alcohol in centilitres to Finnish customs every month and there’s are divided into different categories based on the annual production of a respective brewery. It’s a bit of kerfuffle and I know breweries have had their share of bureaucracy. You really need to be passionate about beer and stubbornness helps.

The microbrewery boom started in Finland and Estonia at about the same time not long, just a few years ago. What are the biggest differences in the environment, where the breweries work, and in the beers that they produce? How would you compare the national and international success of Finnish and Estonian breweries?

I think people are quite like-minded in both sides of the Gulf of Finland. Most of the people are in it for fun, some people are more serious and business oriented than others. Generally speaking, Estonian breweries tend to be more internationally oriented than Finns. Generally. Of course Põhjala has been massively successful and the success has helped others well.

Quality control at the warehouse...

There's been a great change in the beer scene in the big picture during the last ten years. In Finland, we run a bit behind as usual, so the boom has been on like three years. Can you tell us something about your thoughts on Finnish beer culture? Where are we now? Where should we be in, say, 2020?

My two cents. We have over 100 breweries at the moment, which is still less what we had in the early 20th century, but only a few will become business as such. But maybe that doesn’t matter, people having fun brewing beer. I think there’s a lot who consider it as a hobby. A bit like playing in a band. And punk band to be more specific, everyone can join, no previous experience required. I reckon that’s culturally interesting.

I’m hoping microbreweries will bloom in 2020. Hops shortage and market price might have an affect on this however. We need more hop farmers. Business-wise, things are getting more serious all the time, like in any business area, which is wild wild west at first. Major breweries will keep on acquisitioning small ones and we’ll see more consolidation. Not sure how much this will happen in Finland.
Finnish alcohol legislation is under reform that will go through in spring 2017. If the reform will go through as planned, changes include e.g. that beers and other alcohol drinks with max 5,5 % abv can be sold in grocery stores and microbreweries can sell out their beers with max 12% abv from their own premises. An honest opinion: what's wrong in Finland's alcohol politics? Is there something good?

What’s wrong with Finnish alcohol politics? That’s a big question.

The 0.8% raise seems to be the root of all evil to come in the future. I simply don’t believe in monopoly model. Every country has alcohol related problems and it’s always a small minority of people who cause majority of the issues. Also in Finland, whether we have monopoly or not. And even, if we’d go back to prohibition era, we’d have alcohol related problems. Quite likely even more then.

Monopoly or prohibition won’t solve these issues. I don’t want to glorify alcohol, but wherever there’s people, there’s bound to be problems. Mystifying alcohol will only make it worse. But as said, this is a big issue. I'm not at all denying alcohol related problems, I’m questioning the means. The discussion about alcohol is mostly discussion about alcohol related problems. There’s so much more.

There's an ongoing marketing war both globally and locally between micro- and macrobreweries. What do you think of it?

I’d say that’s a “good war”. Brewdog was absolutely spot on with their “beer market is sick and we’re the cure” mission. Now obviously they have become one of the big ones and they need re-position themselves. Supporting local food and beer, is a megatrend that’ll hopefully continue in the years to come.

...and random picks from a happy customer's last order.

An easy question to a good friend of great beer: what is your favorite beer? Why? Ok, let's make it less impossible: name the top three of the last two months.

Not easy at all. Frankly I do not consider myself as a beer expert. To me it’s very much the same as in music. It really depends on the mood, company I’m with, weather, etc. Generally speaking I’m very much of a Imperial Stout guy and you can’t go wrong with Trappist beers. For now I list these 3:
  • Pühaste Dekadents
  • Rochefort 10
  • Tanker/Van Moll Animal Instinct

Let's play a little. If you had to pick any beer style for a Hops United's own brand beer, which would they be? What would you expect from the taste? Could this beer really be available in your online store someday?

Most likely barrel-aged Imperial Stout. I like simple ingredients and when you get that first sip of great brew and it kicks in, I feel very much alive. It’d be something like that. For sure, it’d be great to have on our store!

Final question: what song would you name the one that matches Hops United?

Tom Waits: I Don’t Wanna Grow Up.

We'll play the song. Thanks for the interview, Sami!

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So, this far I've reviewed a bunch of beers ordered from Hops United, for example:
... and of course, the goodies from Bell's Brewery: Two Hearted Ale and Expedition Stout.

There'll surely be more to come. Meanwhile - go shopping and enjoy!


A voice soaked in bourbon, hanged in the smokehouse and ran over with a car? Well, who could disagree. But there's certainly a hook in Waits' voice.

Tom Waits: I Don't Wanna Grow Up (YouTube)

From the 1992 album Bone Machine, the song was written by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan.