I Retreated to Write a Book About Sahti

I Retreated to Write a Book About Sahti

An international book about Finnish farmhouse ale sahti has been my obsession since 2015 when I coauthored a book on sahti in Finnish. Now the dream is coming true and the book will be published by Chicago Review Press in the United States in 2019.

The book will be centered around sahti, but I have looked at the tradition through a very wide-angle lens. I will compare sahti to other farmhouse ales of Northern Europe, and show how the traditions of Nordic and Baltic farmhouse ales are linked to brews of the Viking Age and the Middle Ages. Whether you are a home brewer, craft brewer, or a brewing virgin, I will show you how to brew ancient farmhouse ales in your brewery or kitchen. The book contains four detailed recipes from true farmhouse masters and five recipes of my own design. I will reveal more after the publishing details have been fixed.

This book is the reason why Brewing Nordic site has been so quiet lately. At first I tried to manage other things on the side, but in the late 2017 it became obvious that I need to put all available time into this book. Finishing the book was a formidable job, but luckily I received help from professional proofreaders and photographers. Now the manuscript has been submitted to the publisher, and I should have more time for my family, friends and beer community.

The featured photo above was shot by Sami Brodkin at the Medieval Market of Turku in 2016. This medieval fair in the Southwest Finland attracts each year more than 150,000 visitors and historical brewing demonstrations are one of the attractions. This year, on Friday 29th of June, I will be there too to brew Karelian-Baltic farmhouse ale taari in collaboration with Olu Bryki Raum brewery.

For those who can participate The Medieval Market, here’s more detailed information:

Location: The Medieval Market (Härkäpään Sahtibuar at the work exhibition area), Turku, Finland
Time: From June 28 to July 1, 2018

The vikings of Olu Bryki Raum demonstrate ancient brewing techniques with wooden brewing gear and wood-fired cauldrons. Each day the brewing can be followed for the whole market time: 12–20 on Thu-Fri, and 12–18 on Sat-Sun. Thursday is devoted to sahti with stone-boiled mash, and on Friday the brew is Karelian-Baltic taari from malt breads. On Saturday and Sunday cauldrons are fired for either sahti or taari. Ancient ales of Olu Bryki Raum are sold on site!

Viking-age costume for the brewing demonstration
I realized only a few weeks ago that I need a medieval or Viking-Age outfit for the brewing demonstration. Luckily my wife is an expert on traditional costumes and she made this linen tunic for me. Photo by Mari Varonen.
Christmas Story with Horses and Beer

Christmas Story with Horses and Beer

Before electricity Nordic winters were really dark. Here in central Finland I have around five hours of daylight at this darkest time of the year. In the dark evenings folks made handcrafts in dim light and told stories. So, let me tell you a Christmas story. The story is about horses, but if you know a thing about Nordic Christmas or me, you have already guessed that beer must be involved too.

In the Nordics 26th of December is the day of the Saint Stephen (Tapani in Finland). In Finnish folklore Stephen is the guardian of horses. How Stephen became associated with horses is a very convoluted story, but it seems that horses were celebrated around winter solstice already at pagan times, and later on the clergy related horses to St. Stephen.

Anyway,  around 26th of December special rituals were performed to ensure luck with horses of the house. For example, this ritual was described in a Finnish court record in 1685:

At dawn men rode horses inside the cottage. Beer that was specially brewed for the end of the year was poured on horses’ head, back and crest. Then the horses were allowed to drink the beer. Finally the men drank from the same tankard as well, and rode out of the cottage and into the ice [of a lake?]

This quote is from Kustaa Vilkuna’s book Vuotuinen ajantieto (on Finnish folklore of calendrical events) published in 1950. Unfortunately the book does not cite the original reference, but Vilkuna was famous ethnographer and I am pretty confident that this is not just a legend. The ritual of riding a horse inside the house at Yuletide was also known elsewhere in Finland. How the story ended up in a court record is not explained either, but in 17th century people were occasionally accused of pagan rituals.

Another way of honouring the guardian of horses was preparing and enjoying a meal at a stable, and washing it down with ale or spirits. For example, Vilkuna mentions a western Finnish custom where “men boiled a rabbit or squirrel at a stable and had it with ale and spirits”. These rituals were strictly men’s affairs.

Also lively sleigh rides were very common on St. Stephen’s day, and nowadays St. Stephen’s ride can be done with a car, if no horse is available.

Now, I will briefly explain what I have been doing lately. During November and December I had to work very hard at my day job as an industrial mathematician and that really drained me. I could not write much. As Yule without ale is no Yule at all, I brewed three raw ales in the early December: sahti, medieval gruit ale and a smoky Norwegian farmhouse ale, stjørdalsøl –  three ales on a single eight-hour brew day. With some practice raw ales are really simple to make,  and I will certainly advocate this aspect of traditional farmhouse brewing techniques in the future.

Merry Yule!

Winter Is Coming and I’m Ready

Winter Is Coming and I’m Ready

I just had to use that tired phrase. The arrival of winter is an important turning point for me every year. Once I have picked and preserved all the berries, apples and mushrooms, stocked the firewood and prepared the garden for winter, I’m happy to retreat to indoors. By that time I have turned apples into cider, and replaced  the summer homebrews with more robust ales. When the first snow falls, it is time heat the fireplace, put a mushroom lasagne into oven, and fetch a glass of liquid hygge from cellar.

Indoor activity of course means also more brewing and writing. A few weeks ago I published an article Traditional Farmhouse Malting in Stjørdal, about unique Norwegian traditions that produce extremely smoky and tasty malt and ale. This is a rather thorough article, but still many good photos and stories were left out. Clearly I need to write a sequel, concentrating on commercial maltsters and brewers. However, before that story I will write one or two articles about modern craft malting and farming craft brewers.  I’m curious about what smaller scale of farming and malting can do to beer.

On 27th and 28th of October I’m at an excellent beer festival, OlutExpo in Helsinki. Come over and say Hello if you happen to be there!

Sour Sahti – oh, no!

Sour Sahti – oh, no!

In late July I was brewing for the National Sahti Competition. I had bought a packet of Finnish baker’s yeast, but when it was time to pitch yeast I began to hesitate. I had brewed a Norwegian farmhouse ale four days earlier, and a thick mat of kveik was still floating on the top of the brew. Why not just skim that yeast and ferment sahti with it, instead the same old baker’s yeast everybody else is using.

So I cropped the kveik from the maltøl and dumped it into sahti. Two days later I went to cellar to check if sahti had already fermented, and I instantly smelled vinegar and nail polish remover (ethyl acetate). It did not taste bad, but it had an obvious sour tang unacceptable for a traditional sahti or maltøl. I withdrew it from the competition.

I knew that this kveik I got from Hornindal includes souring bacteria, but I also knew that if used strictly according to the farmhouse brewing folklore, it will produce exquisite sweet ale which is not sour at all. What I could not believe is that this yeast could be distracted so easily from the path which it has been on for decades or even centuries.

Thus I learned the hard way that farmhouse yeasts are really delicate creatures. If one deviates from the traditional practices, things might take unexpected routes. That’s why farmhouse brewers are often reluctant to make any changes to the process.

Sometimes the hard way is the only way to learn. This accident gave valuable clues how kveik works, and I now have a pretty good idea what I should do differently next time. My long term plan is to learn using and maintaining kveik in a true farmhouse fashion, without any lab work. I will report this failure and the working practices eventually.

In the meantime, luckily I have lab purified yeast which produces premium beer. I just brewed a malty juniper ale from the branches shown in the header image. I hope that it will be a perfect autumn beer to drink while doing wobbly brewing experiments. In general juniper is an underrated beer ingredient in today’s home and craft brewing – not just berries but also the needles and wood.

Bog Myrtle by the Lake and Brewers Who Grow Barley

Bog Myrtle by the Lake and Brewers Who Grow Barley

During summer many Finns spend some time at cottages close to nature. I too spent ten days by a lake, and it proved to be a very productive time. There in the summer cottage I finished the story Brewing Norwegian Farmhouse Ale in Hornindal from my road trip to Norwegian farmhouse breweries in June 2017.

From the summer cottage I drove to a very interesting new craft brewery Takatalo & Tompuri in south-east Finland. The founders Mikko Suur-Uski and Juha Kokkala grow their own barley and brew fine lagers from it. The barley is malted in 50 ton batches at the Viking Malt in Lahti, 150 km from the brewery. The brewmaster Mikko also smokes some of the malt at the farm, and I got plenty of excellent New Nordic Beer material which I will publish later.

Another interesting side track happened on a fishing trip by the lake. I found an island full of bog myrtle, the popular spice of ale before hops in the Middle Ages. This wasn’t just a coincidence, as I have been gathering data about pre-hop medieval ales and scanning areas of Finland where bog myrtle grows. In August, I will begin the test brews of historical gruit ale with bog myrtle and yarrow.

In July, I compared fresh Finnish and Norwegian baker’s yeast for brewing sahti. Suomen Hiiva’s fresh yeast is what most sahti brewers use and Idun blå is popular among farmhouse brewers of Norway. Both made a genuine sahti, but there were several remarkable differences. This was a highly interesting test  which I will document later at Brewing Nordic.

At the moment I’m preparing for the National Sahti Competition held 5th of August in Janakkala. I’m representing my hometown Jyväskylä, and this year I’m competing with extremely fresh eight days old sahti. The competition is also a good opportunity to tell sahti folks about Norwegian farmhouse ale and serve them Stjørdalsøl, which I brewed from the malts from Stjørdal and kveik from Hornindal.

Newsletter, Norway and Midsummer

Newsletter, Norway and Midsummer

I have been neglegting the News section of Brewing Nordic, but now I realize that the good old newsletter can be a third very noteworthy channel of information, besides the site itself, and its Facebook and Twitter pages. It seems that many of the interesting beery things I do neither end up in the Brewing Nordic articles nor in social media.

Therefore, I am now committed to write this kind of short news once a month. You can sign up at Brewing Nordic site to receive the news to your inbox, or read them from the News section of this site. I will announce the news also on Facebook and Twitter.

In the last four months I have published very little, but I have collected a lot of fine data, which will show up later at this site. In June I toured farmhouse malthouses and breweries of Norway, where I saw five farmhouse maltings in Størdal near Trondheim and I participated a brewing session in Hornindal. The header image of this post is from the tour, making of juniper infusion in Hornindal. Articles about malting in Størdal and a brewing in Hornindal are in the making, but it might take few months to get them published. You see, long Nordic summer days are good for collecting stories, and the inspiration to write about them comes with shorter and colder days of autumn. In the meantime, check this cool video from the Hornindal’s brewing session.

I have been asked for true farmhouse sahti recipes. Well, I have few, but the recipes are reserved for a publication elsewhere. Nevertheless I’m scanning for opportunities to document sahti brewing sessions. I’m for example trying to make a deal with a 90-year old lady who still brews sahti three times a year. She already turned down an offer from the national Finnish television, but  hopefully I have better luck. In the meantime, check the article Sahti Recipe and Farmhouse Brewing Tips, a practical gateway for brewing Nordic farmhouse ale.

At the moment the people in Finland are preparing for the midsummer Festival. People are stocking up with food and beer, and prepare to go by the lake and have sauna. This summer solstice is the second most important season for sahti, after winter solstice (Christmas) of course. Most traditional brewers make sahti for the midsummer.

I have a good stock of sahti, but this year I’m not going to spend the solstice by the lake. Instead, we  just got a new puppy, and I will start to train her to be a new brewdog of the house.

Freya the brewdog
Our new brewdog, Scottish Deerhound Freya. Without knowing my writings, the breeder named her Freya, according to Norse goddess. Photo by Mari Varonen.
Site Restructured

Site Restructured

During Yule I had time to pause and think. I took a glass of sahti and tried to look at Brewing Nordic as an outsider, or a google search engine. I noticed how badly the site was structured and that my core article on farmhouse ales was terribly long. Thus I rethought and restructured the whole site.

The internal page and link structure changed quite a bit, and because of this some old links have been broken. If you have been linking to this site before 10th of January 2017, please update your links. Since the site in the beginning and the readership have been quite small so far, I thought it is best to do fundamental changes now. From now on I try to avoid any broken links.

I chopped the article Introduction to Nordic and Baltic Farmhouse Ales into three stories: Sahti and Related Ancient Farmhouse Ales,  History of Farmhouse Ales, and Where to Find Commercial Nordic and Baltic Farmhouse Ales?. The first text replaces the old introduction. I also added links to additional material and listed some of my most important references and sources.

The Section named Modern Brews was changed to New Nordic Beer.

Kalja – Traditional Finnish Small Beer

Kalja – Traditional Finnish Small Beer

In the past people used to drink a lot low alcohol beers. These small beers were consumed by pints as part of the daily diet. Fermentation was just a preservation method with hardly any intoxicating effects.

Very little is written about these small beers, perhaps because of their ordinary humdrum nature. However, from the perspective of beer history small beers are extremely interesting. In some areas, such as eastern Finland, domestic small beers have been brewed relatively recently in a very archaic manner, resembling surprisingly the beers of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia.

Finnish small beers are no longer made in the most traditional way, but luckily the ethnographers documented fairly well the old brewing methods. My latest story Small Beer Called Kalja is an overview to what I have found from ethnographical texts so far. This is just a first scratch on a very complex surface.

The header photo is taken from my first attempt to brew ancient kalja. I will return to this topic when I have more brewing experiments under my belt.

Beer Yeast from Bees

Beer Yeast from Bees

Last May in Copenhagen in the New Nordic Beer seminar I met Claus Christensen from Munkebo Mikrobryg who had isolated his house yeast from bees. He poured me an ale fermented with the bee yeast and told me how the yeast ended up from a bee to the beer. You can read this cool story here: Beer Yeast from Bees.

This story opens a whole new Modern Brews section in this site, where I will be exploring the present and future of Nordic beer.


Introduction to the Farmhouse Ales, Part II

Introduction to the Farmhouse Ales, Part II

The Introduction to the Nordic and Baltic Farmhouse Ales is now complete. The new sections deal with history, what to expect when tasting these ales, where these ales can be sampled, and how they should be stored. The history turned out longer than would be needed for an introduction, but since many readers seem to be interested in archaeology and history, I thought to put my theories to the test.

The next story will concentrate on modern Nordic brews, but later this year I will write about how to brew these farmhouse ales.