Beer History: Sahti, A Weird and Wonderful Finnish Beer

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[Photograph: Sami Oinonen on Flickr]

Although their beers may not always be familiar beyond their borders, some nations take brewing so seriously that they feature the subject in their national epic—consider Finland. The Kalevala, compiled in the early 19th century but drawing on much older traditions (perhaps going back as far as the Iron Age in some instances), devotes not-insignificant portions to the growing of barley and subsequent beer production. What is perhaps most interesting, however, is that a number of traditional Finnish beer ingredients go un-namechecked in the poem, which only covers barley, hops and water (and a little bit of honey). Rye, wheat, oats and juniper—frequent additions to sahti, Finland's traditional beer, are entirely overlooked in the poem (though given that the poetic beer is fancy wedding beer and sahti was merely what people made as an everyday drink, it's not really surprising that it does not appear in the Kalevala).

Woman with traditional sahti drinking vessel. [Photograph: Steve Smith]

Sahti has a long history—there is some archaeological evidence that suggests it has been brewed since the Viking era (and perhaps long before), and it was certainly widely produced in the medieval period (its first written mention was in 1366); it was even being exported to Sweden by the 16th century. Indeed, there were academic treatises on sahti production being written as early as the 18th century—it was considered an interesting folk tradition that long ago.

While barley was often an ingredient, rye and oats were not at all unusual. But perhaps the most distinctive aspect of sahti brewing was its use of juniper. Traditionally made using a hollowed-out log known as a kuurna (in modern brewing parlance, this would equate to a lauter tun, where the grain would be separated out from the liquid wort resulting from the mashing process), the wort would be strained through juniper twigs or boughs, imparting a green, herbal flavor. The addition of hops was usually skipped in favor of this step, although some formulations contained both hops and juniper. Another peculiarity was that baker's yeast was typically used instead of a more common brewer's yeast, often imparting something of a sour flavor.

Despite (or perhaps because of) its ubiquity in Finland, sahti remained a cottage industry; when large-scale commercial brewing began in the country in the 19th century, the focus shifted to porters and lagers. Like the US, Finland had an unsuccessful experiment with alcohol prohibition which knocked out the few small-scale sahti producers in existence at the time (though homebrewing of sahti was less affected than home distillation). By the 1970s, sahti was regarded as something worthy chiefly of nostalgia—sahti brewing and drinking equipment were collected as curious ethnographic artifacts, despite the fact that the beer was still being made at home by quite a few people.

Modern commercial sahti production began in the 1980s at Lammin Sahti Oy, Finland's oldest microbrewery, and their sahtis are often those most easily found outside Finland. Other breweries joined in, and sahti is now made using a variety of recipes and with a range of resulting strengths—some quite low in alcohol, others rather potent. The European Union marked sahti with its protected designation of origin (PDO) status in 2002—the designation requires that the beer be traditionally produced and brewed within its specific region of origin, so sahti joined the ranks of products such as Parma ham and Camembert cheese.

That has not prevented American breweries from making their own interpretations of the style—it's become something of a minor trend. Perhaps the most well-known example is Dogfish Head's Sah'Tea, which employs hot rocks in the brewing process and adds some chai for good measure, but there are other examples as well. New Belgium introduced their version last year as part of their Lips of Faith series, while Dark Horse and Elysian have also had a go with the style. Other Scandinavian brewers are also rediscovered the style—Norway's Nøgne Ø and Sweden's Dugges have also collaborated on a sahti.

Even though some sahtis are quite strong, the beer is often quite a refreshing one, thanks to its herbal characteristics, and it is well worth sampling during the hot summer months; its northern origins do not restrict it to the dark winter.

Are you a fan of sahti?

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