Sahti-Shaman

Sahti is the traditional beer of Finland. The popularity of the drink waned after the wars, obviously the prohibition of 1919 – 1932 didn’t help. Today, sahti enjoys a small-time revival on the craft brew band wagon, even on a commercial scale. But at it’s roots, sahti is a farmhouse ale, a living beer, a real ale if you will, made to be consumed within weeks from brewing. It’s also a true craft beer: handmade, no modern equipment, a wood-fired cauldron, the senses of the brewmaster our only gauge. To taste the tradition, we will join a sahti mage on a brewday in Joutsa, Eastern Häme, Finland. But first, let’s look at how it all comes together.

Sahti Officially

Sahti has a relatively short history in writing: the earliest written reference dates back to 1792 (EU). The method itself is ancient, of course, passed, like all crafts, from a master to apprentice: “the brewing instructions have probably been handed down from generation to generation for thousands of years”. More recently, sahti has been granted the TSG protection status of the European Union. Says EU:

“a traditional, slightly cloudy, strong beer produced by fermentation. It is neither pasteurised nor filtered and the fermentation is left to run its course, so it is drunk fresh. The original gravity of the wort is at least 19 °Plato and the alcohol content varies between 6 % and 12 % by volume. The pH is less than 5. The colour varies from yellow to dark brown depending on the raw materials used. Sahti is cloudy because it is unfiltered. Because of the high residual-sugar content fresh sahti is slightly sweet tasting.” (source)

Although the TSG status only covers the method of brewing, real sahti is Finnish. Farmhouse ales exist across the beer belt, of course, and cousins of sahti have survived on two islands of the Baltic Sea: dricku in Gotland, Sweden, and koduõlu in Saaremaa, Estonia.

In the Sauna

Sahtisauna

We will brew in the sauna, which has traditionally doubled as the brew house. In the olden times sauna was also the malt house, the smokery for Finnish palvi meats, and a place to give birth, among other uses. After WWII, many people lived in saunas for a while as nothing else was left. We’re the lucky ones to get to only relax (and brew) in sauna.

Equipment

We brew sahti with a wood-fired oven, with a wooden spatula, and a wooden trough made of juniper. Little has changed since metal vessels and store-bought yeast came into use a century ago. No scales, not a temperature gauge in sight, ominaispainomittari (a hydrometer) too difficult even to pronounce. The only nod towards the modern way of life is the electricity to power the lights.

Sahti-Stoking-up-the-fire

The brew master will test the temperature with his finger, judge the water-to-grist ratio by the looks, decide water additions based on how the color is developing, sparge until it feels right. It’s not hard to imagine the brew master was a sort of a mage to people who didn’t know of saccharification; who couldn’t possibly understand micro-organism such as yeast. Persons capable of changing water to alcohol have been known to enjoy a god-like status before.

Sahti-Temperature-Taking

Raw materials

When everything was still made by hand, the brewer left a sack of cereal in a stream to germinate. The malt was dried in a riihi, the smoky drying barn. Modern malt for sahti is pale and not smoky. The home brewer will purchase a sack of malt and supplement it with raw cereals:

“Sahti is traditionally prepared from raw materials including, in addition to malted barley, other cereal malt and cereals (rye, barley, wheat and oats) and usually hops, fermented using baker’s yeast or harvested yeast. … It takes about 20 kg of malt and 50 g of yeast to make 50 litres of sahti.” (EU)

Depending on mash yield and yeast attenuation, this ratio will provide wort and beer strengths between 1.090 – 1.100 OG and 8 – 10 % ABV respectively. As cereals, in addition to 20 kg of malted barley, our fifty some liters of sahti included 3 kg of raw and 250 g of malted rye. Mashing usually translates as mäskäys; for sahti the process is called imellytys (making something sweet or sugary). Our wort had the OG of 1.093. The yeast will be the Finnish baker’s yeast.

The mash

Sahti-Juniper-Water

Juniper twigs are added to water before being brought to a boil. The juniper water will then serve as the basis for eight-step infusion mash:

“Sahti is brewed by gradually adding water to the mixture of malt and cereals, starting at a temperature of around 40 °C, which is increased to around 100 °C by the time the last water is added.” (EU)

The traditional mashing program, therefore, starts with a protein rest well suited for less modified malts. Gradually raising the temperature will serve to give time for both alpha and beta amylase so we can expect a rather fermentable wort.

When the mash is ready, in our case after eight hours of hourly checks, it is brought to a boil before filtering.

Sahti-Boiling-the-Mash

Sparging

Juniper twigs are employed for the sparging and filtering phases. Here, straws have been laid on top of juniper.

“Sahti production is a craft and has its own special equipment: the wooden trough at least is characteristic” (EU)

Sahti-Kuurina-Steaming

Wort is recycled until it runs clear. Sparge water is near boiling temperature but we’re not worried about tannins as the malt is not roasted or toasted.

A former milk collection vessel, a maitohinkki, receives the sweet liquid.

Sahti-Straw-Bed

Fermentation

Sahti-Starter

A small amount of wort is run into a smaller container, and cooled. The brewer will take a small amount of yeast and mix it thoroughly with the starter – until bubbles form.

“wort, which is then fermented into sahti using baker’s or harvested yeast. Top fermentation is used. The main fermentation takes around three days at room temperature or cooler, after which the sahti is kept cool for at least one week. The alcohol comes exclusively from the sugar in the malts and other cereals.” (EU)

It’s time to pitch. Sahti will take two to three weeks to complete fermentation in a cellar temperature, perhaps one week when fermenting warmer.

The cask is made of juniper. Every once in a while, the brewer will take a sip or two to know how the current sahti is developing. Cask-conditioned real ale won’t get any more real than this!

Sahti-katajapytty-keltainen

Time to Enjoy

Sahti-Serving-Suggestion

The hard work being done, by the brewer and the yeast, it’s time for a taste. It’s malt, to be sure, a bit sweet, maybe even thick if the fermentation isn’t complete or a large amount of rye was used; bananas and cloves not unlike a hefeweizen; a slight carbonation on the tongue; juniper lingers somewhere there as well; with a somewhat sour (lactic acid) and a definitely refreshing finish. A party on the palate.  A party unparalleled, too; no wonder they still make it like they always did.

A living beer, a living tradition.

Glass-of-Sahti

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10 thoughts on “Sahti – the Finnish Farmhouse Ale

  1. Very interesting piece. Also interesting to see that they boil the mash, but don’t boil the wort.

    The EU document is actually wrong. The first description of sahti brewing was written in 1780, by Carl Niclas Hellenius. The 1792 document they refer to is probably Ticcander’s thesis, which has 3-4 sentences about sahti brewing in Sysmä.

    I thought all Finns used bread yeast now, but I notice the EU application says “or harvested yeast.” Do you know if such yeast still exists in Finland?

    1. Hi,

      I’m glad you liked it, and thanks for the comments.

      The wort was just brought to a boil and then lautered immediately. The trough, keg and all other gear coming in contact with the wort are treated with near-boiling liquid beforehand, and as the sparge is also very hot, the boiling is not needed – from sanitization perspective at least. But this was just the method of our host, I’m sure the practice varies a lot.

      I just checked the translation of Räsänen dissertation Vom Halm zum Fass (1975) and this confirms your point on Hellenius dissertation of 1780 being the first written reference to sahti.

      Bread yeast is used, and I don’t believe any farmhouse cultures remain. The mention on harvested yeast was included, I have understood, so that it would be possible for any manufacturer to harvest their own yeast (starting from bread yeast) and use it to subsequent batches without being excluded from the official definition. Obviously it’s still possible that such culture could be found somewhere, perhaps this should be looked at.

  2. > The wort was just brought to a boil and then lautered immediately.

    Yes, this is how I’ve understood that process to be, but I’ve never tried a beer made that way. This process is known from many places, including Norway.

    > But this was just the method of our host, I’m sure the practice varies a lot.

    It does. I’m still trying to get an overview of the sahti methods. I’m hoping Räsänen will supply me with the full list. Unfortunately, slogging through the German is hard work.

    > this confirms your point on Hellenius dissertation of 1780 being the first written reference to sahti.

    It’s actually a really interesting dissertation. He’s worried that Finnish people die too young, and he thinks the reason is mistakes that they make in brewing and preparation of food. So he wants to instruct them in the proper way of brewing, which above all means boiling the wort. That’s why he wrote that piece. I guess 234 years later we can conclude he failed.

    > Obviously it’s still possible that such culture could be found somewhere, perhaps this should be looked at.

    Working on it. 🙂 I’ve yet to see any sign that such a culture exists, but who knows. They turned out to be much more widespread in Norway than anyone knew.

    1. You are right, it wouldn’t be too hasty to say at this point that Hellenius’ goals didn’t succeed in this respect 🙂

      Do you have further Finnish books on the topic? Among others, there’s a book called “Sahtikirja” (“Sahti book”), which has a lot of stories collected from all over the sahti area (Asplund, 1990). It deals with all aspects of the process and is a very interesting read. There are others as well. I can help you with those if you need.

  3. Thank you. 🙂

    I have Räsänen (in German), Hellenius and Ticcander (both in Swedish). I also have a Danish book which has a chapter where the author visits a sahti home brewer. And Peter Ovell’s paper. That’s about it right now.

    I know there is a book in English called “Small-scale brewing”, by Ilkka Sysilä, that has about 23 pages on sahti. I’ll probably buy that at some point.

    I’ve found that Folkkulturarkivet (part of Swedish Literature Society) has survey results of a survey of Finnish brewers done in 1964. I’ve written to them to see if I can get access to the results.

    And there is the thesis “P. Poutanen, Hembryggt öl i Lampis socken, Åbo Universitet, 1975.” I’ve written to the university to see if it’s possible to get a copy of it.

    Ilmar Talve seems to have written a monumental work on malt houses, and it seems to be available in Swedish, so I’ll try to get hold of that at some point.

    I know there’s lots of stuff in Finnish, like Asplund’s book, and a massive pile of survey answers, but unfortunately I can’t read Finnish, so they are not much help to me. Unfortunately. So thank you for the offer, but it looks like these are sources I won’t be able to get into.

    If you know of any more resources in Swedish, German, or English that would be extremely welcome. Anything that deals with Estonian or Latvian beer would be great, too.

  4. Came back to this blog post now to add it to my recipe database. You don’t mention any use of hops. Does that mean that the brewer didn’t add any hops at all?

    1. That’s correct, the brewer did not use any hops in this sahti. I was definitely picking up more sour notes as the sahti aged beyond two to three weeks. I think the brewer mentioned that after two weeks, when fermenting in the fridge or quite cool cellar, you’d expect to get more and more sour tastes.

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