Having long prided myself on meticulously researching the culture and history of all things beer, you can imagine my chagrin when I recently learned that I had been unintentionally divulging some misinformation.
For some time, I have been keen on a rustic style of Finnish beer called Sahti. When I found what I believed to be a modern Finnish example of the style available stateside, I made sure to include it on the bottle list at Rustico. Upon tasting that brew, I found it rather tasty, but it seemed a bit smooth and refined. My research had led me to believe I would experience something wild, something almost Lambic-esque, and yet this brew proved to show aromas I would associate with Bavarian Hefeweizen. At that point, I chalked it up to contemporary brewing methods and sanitation practices; I presumed that some technical liberties had cleaned up the flavor profile. But then a few months ago, I heard whispers of true Sahti heading to the DC area and I found myself digging deeper into the issue.
It turns out that the brew I had touted as Sahti—Kataja Olut, from the small Finnish brewer Lammin Sahti Oy—was actually a modern variant on the style called Mahti. Further investigation made it very clear why only the Mahti had been making its way from Finland to our shores.
Sahti may be the oldest continuously brewed beer in the world, and is most certainly the oldest in Europe. It comes from the farmhouse-homebrewing tradition, a tradition which manifested itself in Finland in very interesting ways. Sahti has been brewed since the 9th or 10th centuries CE, with adjustments in the recipe adding rye malt and even a small addition of hops during the 12th and 14th centuries. What hasn’t changed are some methods and ingredients that serve to dominate this antique brew’s character. Like all rustic farmhouse ales, the recipe and method of Sahti production is based around what would have been immediately available to the brewer: in this case, juniper branches and berries, as well as baker’s yeast.
Real Sahti is mashed with malted rye and barley (and often with wheat and oats as well). Juniper berries and branches, often along with a scant amount of hops, are boiled separately, and then the juniper-hop solution is added to the mash, where the liquid steeps to release compounds into the solution. The final mash liquid is then placed in an open wooden trough, called a Kuurna (which is often no more than a hollowed out log), where it rests before being channeled and drained (lautered) through slats in the bottom that are covered in more juniper branches. The beer is never boiled, and is fermented following this draining (lautering).
Not only is the beer never boiled, but is fermented with a baker’s yeast, rather than a brewer’s yeast. Such yeast provides some banana-like esters (as found in Hefeweizen), but often a certain wild flavor (earthy-funky and even lightly acidic) may arise from other micro flora that infiltrate by permission of the open vessels used for mashing and lautering; these critters will persist through to the finished product because the brew goes unboiled. Like most traditional brews, the beer is also unfiltered and thus cloudy.
The oldest Finnish microbrewery, Lammin Sahti Oy, has been producing Sahti, under the leadership of founder and managing director Pekka Kääriäinen, since 1988 (the brewery was founded in 1985). While Sahtia (the commercial name of their Sahti) is the main product of this artisanal brewery, Pekka only produces about 255 barrels of Sahtia per year (around 500 standard 15.5 gallon kegs). A small output of traditional beer from an equally small village called Lammi, located about 300 miles north of Helsinki.
Even though Pekka has seen a fair degree of popularity for his Sahti (bolstered no doubt by the style receiving a Protected Designation of Origin label from the E.U. in 2002), he still produces ciders and more modernized ales for more mainstream drinkers. Among these brews is the Kataja Olut I mistook for the Sahtia.
Kataja Olut is an example of what often happens to traditional ale in modern society. Many of the methods of the farmhouse-homebrewer make little sense to brewers of today. In the old days, drinkers tended to enjoy rustic, funky flavors more than they do now, and beverages would have been produced in smaller quantities to primarily fulfill the needs of the farm; as a result, mildly tart farmhouse beers would seldom turn sour by going unconsumed or by “turning” over a long voyage of export.
Today, drinkers generally enjoy cleaner flavors, and breweries almost exclusively produce for public sale, whether locally or further afield. Thus beers are almost always boiled, to neutralize the organisms that may cause funky flavors, or even infections, if the brew isn’t immediately consumed. Higher hopping rates also are employed to protect against infection and guarantee a longer shelf life for the product both during its journey and consequent storage.
So the Kataja Olut is produced like traditional Sahti with two key differences: a more typical ale yeast strain replaces the baker’s yeast of yore, and the brew is boiled for 60 minutes to ensure a shelf life of over 12 months. Make no mistake though; this beer still boasts intriguing and eccentric flavors. And is quite delicious.
But what will the Sahtia taste like? B United, the importer who brings in the Kataja, has decided it is high time to give the real Sahti its day and has employed modern means to help make this happen. Only 60 cases (24 11.2 oz. bottles per) have been imported, each case steadied by temperature controlled containers from the brewery to the venue of consumption. ChurchKey has caught the importer’s attention due to our commitment to proper storage and service, especially with regard to temperature. Thus two cases of Finnish tradition will arrive tomorrow afternoon (Friday, December 18, 2009) and we will be pouring 5 oz. pours of Sahtia beginning at 4 pm until it runs dry.
We can learn so much about the past, but remain firmly rooted in our present perspective. To taste something so redolent of bygone days can transcend modern apprehensions of history, and relate something more. Join us and experience the past in your glass.
ChurchKey & Birch & Barley