My book Viking Age Brew: The Craft of Brewing Sahti Farmhouse Ale is now available worldwide (see Books for details). Here’s an additional background story of how I became an advocate for traditional farmhouse ales.
I had my first pint of traditional Finnish farmhouse ale sahti in 1991 at the age of twenty when I moved to Jyväskylä. This town in Central Finland is on the edges of the districts where traditional farmhouse ale culture thrives.
I’m originally from eastern Finnish district of Savo where sahti is an alien drink. Perhaps for this reason this pint wasn’t love at first sip, but the flavor certainly burned a mark into my brain. A still and hazy ale with viscous milkshake-like mouthfeel. Intoxicating and a nourishing meal on its own, yet easy drinking. Firm taste of malt and hefty banana aroma.
Ten years later I was homebrewing actively and eager to brew every beer style. My friend Petteri wondered why sahti hasn’t been on the list. I soon ticked sahti as a well, but as homebrewers often approach sahti, I mixed tradition with some modern brewing practices. The ale turned out OK, but it missed a soul.
Then, in 2007 in the Finnish Sahti Competition, I met true farmhouse brewers and the tradition began to unfold. It was spectacular to meet these countryside women and men who have never read brewing books and their recipes aren’t written down. Many of them have brewed for decades only one kind of beer, their family style of sahti.
Anyone who tastes sahti or sees how it is brewed, immediately notices that there’s something very unusual going on. The brewers stick to odd habits unknown to modern brewers, yet the brews are extremely tasty and unique. My desire to learn and understand more grew. Where do these odd habits come from? How old they are?
In 2013 I asked my friend Johannes Silvennoinen to join me in writing an article about sahti. Next week Johannes replied, let’s write a book. Soon Hannu Nikulainen joined the team. We traveled 8,000 kilometers in Finland and Estonia to document sahti and koduõlu. That was a gonzo road trip, and even after two books on sahti, I still haven’t drained all stories. The Finnish book on sahti was published in 2015.
In the Finnish book on sahti, our primary aim was to capture today’s alive culture into the book. We wrote a section on the history of sahti, but a full explanation of the origins was too big to chew on. I had heard people say that sahti dates back to thousands of years or that the Vikings brewed that way. But nobody could explain why.
This bothered me and I started to dig more into archaeology and the history of beer. With the help of Norwegian beer writer Lars Marius Garshol and few others, I begin to understand the full picture. I soon realized that the other alive traditions of koduõlu in Estonia, gotlandsdricke in Sweden, maltøl in Norway and kaimiškas in Lithuania are part of the same culture, and seem so peculiar only because similar traditions around them have disappeared. These folk beers are the remains of a larger culture in northern Europe and predate the hopped beer that started to spread in the late Middle Ages.
Now both alive traditions and the history of Nordic and Baltic farmhouse ales are documented into Viking Age Brew. Admittedly, the primitive folk ales of today aren’t a time machine that can take us directly back to how things were a thousand years ago, but in this book I will argue that they can come close. The fascinating thing about alive oral traditions is that they can reveal details that did not survive into historical archives or archeological findings. Hopefully, people begin to see Nordic and Baltic farmhouse beers are seen as significant remnants of beer history.