Nick Carr on August 19, 2016 7 Comments History of Sahti Beer Finland is home to large swaths of boreal forest, thousands of lakes, and a brewing tradition that stretches back into history’s dim shadow. Sahti is recognized as one of the oldest continually brewed beer styles in the world. It is an unfiltered, unpasteurized, top fermented beer with a cloudy disposition; brewed with additions of juniper berries and branches. The earliest Finnish references to Sahti date back to 1366 — a mention of how much beer was consumed at the burial of a certain Bishop. But, discovered physical evidence (PDF) links Sahti to the wider Scandinavian world and a much older time. In the 1930’s, a sunken Viking ship was discovered off the coast of Norway. In the ship were wooden barrels of a 9th century design, thought to have contained Sahti. This find seems to corroborate earlier barrel remains and Sahti residue found on a Viking burial ship at Oseburg, Norway in 1904. Futher evidence to Finland’s brewing traditions can be found in the ancient Finnish saga Kalevala. It contains some 400 lines that reference the brewer’s art, like the sample below. “Osmotar, the beer-preparer, Brewer of the drink refreshing, Takes the golden grains of barley, Taking six of barley-kernels, Taking seven tips of hop-fruit, Filling seven cups with water, On the fire she sets the caldron, Boils the barley, hops, and water, Lets them steep, and seethe, and bubble Brewing thus the beer delicious, In the hottest days of summer, On the foggy promontory, On the island forest-covered; Poured it into birch-wood barrels, Into hogsheads made of oak-wood.” Source Though the saga was first written down in 1835, scholars believe it is linked to a much older oral folktale tradition that may extend all the way back to the Iron Age. Commercial large-scale brewing only took hold in Finland in the early 1800s. Though, Sahti brewing was undoubtedly well established by the time of the 1366 reference, Finnish brewing traditions, remained tied to the domestic life of household and farm far longer than in other parts of Europe. This, along with few early governmentally imposed brewing restrictions, certainly played a part in Sahti’s survival into the present day. Mirroring many other cultures, the brewing traditions of the Finnish often put women in a central and important role, at least in west Finland. They were the master brewers and Sahti was considered superior to other everyday beer they brewed. So, it was often kept for celebrations or gatherings and the best Sahti recipes were passed from one generation to the next within a household or village. These rustic creations made use of whatever was available on the farm; usually barley, with a supplementation of rye and/or oats. Malting was accomplished by wetting sacks of these grains in a stream or other water source until they germinated. Then the grain would be dried or smoked in a sauna. Wild or cultivated plants (PDF) such as yarrow, bog myrtle, caraway, and other herbs were often used in its flavoring. This pattern of wild herb use parallels the Gruit brewing in other parts of Europe. Of the plants used, juniper played the central role. Hops would become a minor player around the 14th century as they enjoyed more widespread use through other parts of Europe. Many of the herbs once included in Sahti recipes fell out of use, whether because of hops or because of some other unknown reason, but juniper remained. Learn More About The History of Beer Sahti was traditionally brewed with minimal, if any, boil and this may be one of the reasons hops never played a bigger role. The mash made use of hot stones to take it through multiple temperature steps before being filtered through a bed of straw and juniper branches layered along the bottom of a kuurna — a carved wooden trough with a plugged bunghole at the bottom. A small amount of hops were added to either the mash or as part of the filter bed. Often the first runnings were collected separately from the sparged runnings. These were then fermented separately to create two strengths of beer. For fermentation, the wort was either left open to wild yeast or yeast saved from a previous batch was pitched. When commercial brewing did come it was on the tide — and to take advantage of — a growing popularity of certain styles of beer in Europe, most notably lager. These operations had no real ambitions to bring the native Sahti to a wider audience. Sahti remained a small but bright light. Its homegrown popularity allowed it to weather both Finland’s own prohibition years (1919-1932) and several decades of legislation meant to restrict its brewing. Today, this ancient beer has found new representation in both its own country and abroad. The Finnish Sahti Society was founded in 1989 and promotes the beer’s history and culture, particularly through an annual Sahti competition. It has also been granted both TSG (Traditional Specialty Guaranteed) and PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) status and, in 2015, the first comprehensive study of what characteristics make the Sahti style truly a Sahti was performed. The brewing process for Sahti hasn’t changed much over the last 500 years. Finnish baker’s yeast has replaced wild fermentation in all the Finnish breweries and has been shown to perform just as well, better in certain respects, than a least a couple of true brewing strains. Metal brewing equipment has taken the place of wooden pots. Direct heat is often used to either heat the mash or heat the water for the mash, but there is one commercial brewery, Hollolan Hirvi, still using heated stones to take the mash through its steps. Dogfish Head also used heated stones in the making of their unique version of the beer, Sah’Tea. Style Profile & Characteristics Quick Characteristics Color Range: 4-22 SRM Original Gravity: 1.076-1.120 OG Final Gravity: 1.016-1.020 FG IBU Range: 7-15 ABV Range: 7.0-11.0% Appearance: Ranges from pale yellow to dark brown, typically a medium amber hue; Low carbonation lends to little head; Clarity will be poor due to it being unfiltered Aroma: Sweet & grainy with notes of caramel or spicy rye; Juniper should be noticeable, but low; Banana esters should be pronounced; Should not smell sour. Flavor: Banana & clove from yeast will be flavorful; Malts will be grainy with spicy-rye and caramel notes; Low hoppy bitterness or flavors; Juniper may add notes of pine; Sourness is not appropriate for this style. Mouthfeel: Carbonation will be low; Body will have a thick & tacky mouthfeel; High alcohol warmth possible. Serving & Storage Temperature: 40-45°F Shelf Life: 2 Months Suggested Glass: Snifter or Tulip Glass (or Wooden Haarikka) Food Pairings: Pickled Herring, Lohikeitto, French Onion Soup, Indian Cuisine, Stilton Cheese, Tangy Citrusy Desserts, Leipäjuusto The guidelines for the Sahti beer style are set by the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) Style Committee. The below details are a summary of what a Sahti should represent. The BJCP classifies the Sahti style as a “Historical Beer” and it can be found in their guidelines as category 27I. There are a total of eight styles listed in this category, with a few of the more popular styles being Gose, London Brown Ale, Roggenbier and Lichtenhainer. Appearance: Should pour a pale off yellow to dark brown with most falling somewhere in the range of a medium amber color. Traditionally unfiltered so it will be quite cloudy. The low carbonation generally means very little head will form. Aroma: Sweet somewhat grainy malt character, along with caramel and spicy rye notes. Aromas of juniper should be noticeable, but remain low to medium. Esters of banana will be pronounced, while contributing clove-like phenols will be just slightly lower. Should not come across as sour smelling and may have some light alcohol spiciness. Mouthfeel: Only very low carbonation should be present if noticeable at all. It can have good warming qualities due to its high alcohol and young age, though often residual sweetness balances this character somewhat. Body will be weighted with protein, creating a thick, tacky mouthfeel. Taste: The yeast contributions of banana and clove are often some of the strongest elements in the flavor. Malt will be of a grainy spiced-rye quality, with possible caramel notes along for the ride. Any roast is considered inappropriate to the style. It should have low bitterness and no hop flavor/aroma. The juniper branches/berries may add some piney notes, while the berries may build some reminders of gin. Each of these should be supportive of the other flavors, bringing complexity without being too bold. Should not give the impression of sourness. Food Pairings: Well, the first place to look for pairing inspiration is, of course, Finland. Try Sahti with pickled herring or Lohikeitto, a soup of potatoes, leaks, and salmon, topped with dill. French onion soup is another good option. Any sort of slightly spicy cuisine such as Indian that makes generous use of cumin, turmeric, and coriander will play well. Or go for a simple lunch of thick dark rye bread topped with cooked vegetables. For pairing with cheese go with something spicy and strong like Stilton. You may even try one of the fruit infused varieties such as lemon Stilton. Another good choice might be a blue, aged, or fruit infused Wensleydale. Sahti works great as an aperitif or after dinner digestive, but will also roll with tangy citrus desserts. You could also take the traditional route for dessert and serve Leipäjuusto, an oven cooked cheese, served in pie slices, and topped with cloudberry jelly. Storage & Serving: For best presentation and greatest appreciation, a Sahti should be served young, at around 45-50°F in a snifter or tulip, but for greatest authenticity it should be served in its traditional two-handled wooden ladle cup, the haarikka. They are best stored at cellar temperatures away from light and enjoyed within 2 months. *Reference: The 2015 BJCP Style Guidelines Popular Examples of the Style Note: All the American examples may be hard to find because of limited production. The only ones produced year round are the ones in Finland and those are hard to find because, well, they’re from Finland. Samuel Adams Norse Legend from Boston Beer Company Sah’Tea from Dogfish Head Brewing Company Bare Bear from Off Color Brewing Company Nordic from Castle Danger Brewing Company Strong Sahti from Finlandia Sahti Ky Black Trumpet Sahti from Scratch Brewing Company Lammin Sahtia from Lammin Sahti Oy Sahati from The Ale Apothecary Kivisahti (Stone Sahti) from Hollolan Hirvi Sahti from Propolis Brewing Company Tips for Brewing Sahti Before you attempt to brew a Sahti recipe, here are some general tips on what you should expect from this style. Grain Bill: The grain bill for a Sahti recipe can vary quite a bit. Barley is always used as the base malt and can easily make up 100% of the grain bill. Other grains that might be included are; rye, oats, wheat, and possibly some kilned malts. Today, a “Sahti malt mix” is sold in Europe. One manufacturer of this special malt blend is Viking Malts. Blends like this usually contain a mix of pilsner malt, slightly kilned malts, and maybe enzymatic malt. Unfortunately, this Sahti malt is hard to come by outside of Europe. To build your grain bill, start with a base 80 to 90 percent either English pale ale or Pilsner malt. Munich malt is found in many Sahti recipes and can make up from 10 to 20 percent of the remaining grain. Use rye in amounts up of 5-10% — though it can make up as much 40% — and a small percentage of malted and/or flaked wheat, or flaked oats could also be included. That’s a basic and pretty common breakdown of modern Sahti grain bills. It is by no means the only way to brew it though, especially when it comes to specialty malts. With the amount of malts available, even to the homebrewer, today there is no reason to explore and experiment with this style. Crystal, biscuit, honey, crystal rye, Midnight wheat, smoked, and home kilned malts are just a few examples that might work will in a Sahti. For the extract brewer, start with a good base of pilsner or English pale ale malt extract. For some added complexity, you could steep two or three of the above specialty grains. If using any kilned malts such as biscuit, amber, victory, etc. you’ll have to do a mini-mash using a small portion of a base malt, in this case, pilsner or English pale, to create enough diastatic power to convert the sugars in the kilned malts into fermentable sugars. Munich malt can convert itself. Hops: Sahti does not have significant bitterness because there is no long boil in the brewing process and only minimal hops are used. Token hops may have been used for their antiseptic properties, but juniper also has much the same properties, so their use purely for this benefit seems unlikely. Whether you use hops or not is going to be up to your own preferences, and likely something you will want to experiment with. But remember, the bulk of the aroma and flavor in a Sahti should come from the Juniper branches and berries. When hops were used, they were added as part of the sparge filter or directly to the mash, which was sometimes boiled for a short time as a last step. In this way, hops could have imparted slight aroma and possibly a little flavor, but very little bitterness. Stick to low-alpha hop varieties and those of a more earthy/spicy quality. European hops are going to be recommended and should be a nice complement to the juniper. A few good varieties to choose from include: German Noble Hops — Saaz, Tettnang, Hallertauer Mittelfrüh English Hops — Fuggle, East Kent Goldings, Challenger The Juniper: Juniper berries, which are actually a cone and not a true berry, can often be purchased at Co-ops, organic food outlets and many herb shops. Even some online homebrew supply stores carry them. They are also widely available on Amazon, which may be the easiest route for you. Unfortunately, it’s not as common to find options with branches. It’s possible to brew a respectable Sahti recipe with just the berries, but you will forgo some of the complexity. For full on authenticity and complexity, you’re gonna need the branches and that means you may have to do a little of your own foraging. Junipers grow almost everywhere so they won’t be terribly hard to find, but be sure that your chosen juniper is of an edible species. Berries from certain species have thujone oil in them which can cause an upset stomach and all will cause digestive distress if too many are eaten. The most common juniper is Juniperous communis, or the Common Juniper. The berries you buy at the grocery store or online will likely be from this species. The one often grown in central and eastern North America is Juniperus virginiana, or Eastern Red Cedar — it’s not a true cedar… confusing I know. Both are edible and the Common Juniper is the species used to flavor gin. I’ve also personally used the berries from Juniperus scopulorum, the Rocky Mountain Juniper, for flavoring mead. Often, brewing water was heated with juniper branches to impart even more juniper flavors. If you want to keep to the spirit of “ancientness” exuded by this historical beer style you can actually take advantage of junipers antiseptic properties and make a large juniper bath of boiled water to use for sanitation and leave your cleaning chemicals completely out. The Mash: Sahti recipes are traditionally brewed with a step mash, but with today’s malts can also be done with a single infusion mash at 149°F. Before direct fire heating was used for brewing, the temperature was stepped up by placing hot rocks in the wooden mash vessel. This would also cause some of the malt sugars to caramelize around the rocks, adding depth to the flavor. If you use a single vessel to both mash and sparge, be sure to cover the false bottom with short juniper branches before you start your mash. Heat the branches in water to just below the boiling point to sanitize them beforehand. The traditional step mash was quite involved with up to 8 different rests over a span of some 4 hours. You don’t have to go to this extreme though. Mash in at around 100°F and use the standard rests of 122°F, 140-149°F, and possibly a final rest at 160°F before mash out at 168°F. Do this over 90 minutes to 2 hours depending on the number of rests. At this point the mash was often briefly boiled (10-20 minutes). If using a separate vessel for your sparge, cover the bottom with short juniper branches and start to ladle in your mash. Sparge with 170°F water and re-circulate the wort until it runs clear. Yeast: Ancient Sahti was left open to the environment and allowed to spontaneously ferment. Today, in its native home, Finnish baker’s yeast is used. It is said to produce clove-like phenols and a heavy dose of banana-like esters in the finished beer; a profile that may be tricky to duplicate with baker’s yeast from other countries. You’re welcome to give it a shot though. It’s always fun to experiment. When considering brewing yeasts, you’re basically looking for good attenuation and one that has a somewhat fruity and phenolic profile. To my mind, the profile of the Finnish baker’s yeast sounds very similar to a Bavarian weizen, so this may be a good place to start. This is also the type of yeast Dogfish Head uses to make their Sah’Tea, I believe. Lambic yeast could be a good choice too. Though, in this case, you’d be trying to mirror the profile of ancient wild yeast caught while practicing open fermentation, and not so much the modern Finnish baker’s yeast. Some European ale yeasts may also work decently. You could also get your yeast from the juniper berries. The white stuff that you can rub off of the berries is wild yeast and it’d be interesting, not to mention economical, to use them in more than one capacity. There is plenty of information on the web about wild yeast collection. Generally, what you would do is pick your berries — you can even take pieces of the branch — take them home and put them into a low gravity starter without washing them. With junipers anti-bacterial properties, it’s likely you’ll have less problems with infection than you would if you where trying to get yeast from sugary fruit. Swirl or shake to get some oxygen in there and then put an airlock on it. It may take several days, even a couple weeks to get activity, but once you start to see some foam, give it a smell. It’ll be pretty easy to tell if something else grew along with the yeast. If it smells good let it finish fermenting. Once it’s done and the yeast as flocculated out, stick it in the refrigerator for a cold crash of at least 24 hours. When about ready to brew your Sahti recipe, take it out of the fridge and decant off most of the liquid without disturbing the yeast layer. You can smell and taste the liquid to check again for any baddies. If all is well, add the yeast cake into new higher gravity starter. You’ll then pitch this starter for fermentation. Fermentation: Fermentation times are going to depend on what type of yeast you use. Baker’s yeast can ferment quite vigorously, while collected wild yeast is a bit of an unknown and could change somewhat each time you use a new collection. Generally, Sahti will be done with primary fermentation within 2 to 5 days. Keep an eye on it. A couple ways to tell when primary is completing: The foam will begin to subside and liquid reemerge. If you’re getting only a single bubble through your air lock every minute. Once primary was complete, traditional Sahti would be transferred to a secondary, in this case a wooden barrel, until attenuation was complete. So, rack it into a clean carboy and set it aside at cellar temperature for as little as a week, if you used the no boil method; or up to several months, if you included a boil. This is one you’ll want to taste every so often to see where it’s at. If you decide to not boil and/or use wild yeast, remember there is always the possibility — though unlikely, if you’ve adhered to good sanitation practices — that you get all the way to the end here and find your beer contaminated. That’s just one of the hazards and comes with the territory. Serving: Traditional Sahti was served young. It’s a living beer, meaning given time, bacteria and other off flavors could still develop. Historically, Sahti was often enjoyed straight out of the wooden barrels and always served with no added carbonation. Most modern examples are served with slight carbonation and many are bottled. Whether bottling or kegging, think along the lines of an English mild when you carbonate and shoot for 1.2 to 1.6 volumes. If proper sanitation was adhered to and, especially if you included a boil, the beer should last for at least a couple months. If you really want to go all out with tradition, find or even make some haarikka — the customary Finnish drinking vessel of wood with two straight handles — to serve your Sahti in. These drinking cups varied in size from a “small” 1 liter to an incredible, shared cup of 10 liters (2.6 gallons)! Cheers!