REVIEW: Sah’tea from Dogfish Head Craft Brewery

Quick Characteristics
Brewery: Dogfish Head Craft Brewery
Location: Milton, DE
Style: Sahti
ABV: 9%
IBUs: 6
Appearance: Cloudy & Pale Golden-Orange
Aroma: Reminiscent of Belgian Tripel with Notes of Banana & Clove
Flavor: Interesting Clove; Clean Astringency; Hints of Sweet Banana
Availability: Limited
Pairs With: Soft Ripe Cheeses, Roasted Duck or Venison

Everyone knows of Dogfish Head Brewery, either because of their strange name, their beer, or the Discovery TV show Brew Masters; which, sadly only ran 5 episodes before being cancelled. They are known for high hop IPA’s, dabbling in some strange brews, and trying to re-imagine some ancient beers to be enjoyed in the modern age. The one I have set to review this week is one of those in the “Ancient Ales” series.

Sahti is a Finnish beer dating back to the 9th century. This beer uses juniper as part of its flavor profile. Juniper branches are placed in the bottom of a kuurna, (a mash tun traditionally made from an aspen log that has been hollowed out) and the beer is filtered through the juniper twigs. The malt bill is usually a single light malt with, possibly, some rye added and very little if any hops. The yeast would have been just a baker’s yeast. Over time the strain most used has become associated with the brew, imparting clove and banana-like characteristics to the beer.

Traditional Sahti is said to be turbid and full-bodied most likely due to the poor flocculation of the baker’s yeast and an abundance of proteins that would not be present if a standard wort boil was part of the brewing process. Instead of boiling, the traditional process uses hot rocks to add heat to the mash. This practice causes the malt to caramelize around the hot stones adding a caramel and burnt sugar flavor to the beer. So, there’s a little bit about traditional Sahti, time to see how Dogfish Head measures up.

The first thing you notice about Dogfish Head’s rendition, beyond the little girl riding the reindeer with a tea pot in one hand and a glass of beer in the other, is the name… uummm “adjustment”. They’ve added chi tea to the brew and changed the name to reflect this addition, cleverly I might add, to Sah’tea. Neither the label or website says anything about using juniper twigs in the mash tun, but juniper berries sourced from Finland are used, can’t get much closer to the beer’s roots then that.

Sah’tea from Dogfish Head Brewery

So, let’s run the list. Juniper (check). Rye grain (check). Hot rocks (check). Low IBU (check). Baker’s yeast (mmmm, no check), but they do use German weizen yeast which would seem to offer much the same flavors as the “Sahti yeast”. The chi tea is not traditional, but who knows it may work.

The Pour and Aroma

The Sah’tea pours a cloudy and pale golden-orange, like a sunset through thin clouds. Happily fizzing white foam forms an inch high soapy head. It’s happiness is all too brief and like mist burnt away by morning heat the head quickly disappears.

The aroma brings to mind a Belgian tripel, but for the note of chia, a stowaway of some oddity on this close-to-familiar ship. Banana and clove are also quiet easily picked out, no doubt a contribution of the German weizen yeast.

Mouthfeel and Taste

Interesting clove and clean astringency combination across the palate, a not unpleasant waltz of juniper and yeast. Notes of something like sweet banana bread pop with an intake of breath. Spice rolls up mid palate. Rye grain and chai tea maybe? It sticks through the swallow, then morphs back into sweeter notes of clove and banana. Brings up thoughts of nice thick slices of banana bread or maybe spiced banana pudding.

Though this is the only Sahti I’ve tried, everything I’ve read speaks of a much fuller body then this beer can muster. The body is thin and can’t quite carry the complexity. The higher alcohol lends a nice warming note to the slightly astringent mouthfeel.

Finishing The Impression

This is an interesting take on an old style. The chi tea adds some spicy notes, and though admittedly good, it seems a little too “there” to me. As if a supporting character had suddenly jumped into the spotlight reciting lines that weren’t his to say. It makes the beer a bit too busy. Maybe at a lower level the chi would work better. It also could be that a fuller body would make the chi less prominent. It would be nice to try some other Sahtis out there to see how they compare.

I encourage you to try this when you’re feeling adventurous. It’s well worth a sampling and, along with all the other beers in Dogfish Head’s “Ancient Ales” line, are noteworthy, if for no other reason, then that of curiosity and the chance to “re-drink” the past.

Cheers!

More Beer Reviews:

Nick Carr

About Author

Nicoli Carr has been tinkering with homebrewing for over 10 years and is currently enrolled in the American Brewers Guild (CBA). When he’s not studying or working, he is likely out foraging wild brewing options, writing, or hunting stillness in remote places.

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