This is an introduction to ancient homebrewed farmhouse ales of northern Europe. Finnish Sahti is the best known of them, but similar beers exist in the Nordic and Baltic countries: koduõlu in Estonia, gotlandsdricke in Sweden, maltøl in Norway and kaimiškas in Lithuania.
Once upon a time there were farmers who brewed beer from their own grains. They malted the grains, picked seasonings from the nearby forest, and fermented the brew with their house yeast. These farmers were not professional brewers, but they passed on their craft, word of mouth, from generation to generation.
Today farmhouse ales are not always brewed exactly this way, and the term refers to the origin of the tradition. For many the designation brings instantly Belgium and France to mind, but it is a much more generic term. Once most beer in Europe was farmhouse ale.
What confuses people is that, unlike Belgian and French farmhouse ales, the Nordic and Baltic traditions are still largely domestic brewing practices, an ancient way of homebrewing. That’s why these traditions are unique within the beer cultures of Europe. That is also why these beers are rarely exported, can be hard to find even in their own countries, do not store well, and unlikely will become commercial hits. Admittedly, there are some commercial farmhouse breweries in the Nordics and Baltics, but basically they have just scaled up the old domestic techniques.
In this text I will concentrate mostly on the ancient ales that have survived to the present day: sahti in Finland, koduõlu in Estonia, gotlandsdricke in Sweden, maltøl in Norway and kaimiškas in Lithuania. These traditions stem from the same origin and have much in common. It is not certain when these traditions took shape, but likely they developed during the Iron Age, before the principles of modern brewing were established in the Middle Ages. See History of Farmhouse Ales for details.
In all Nordic and Baltic countries the word for beer derive from the same origin as ale: olut in Finland, õlu in Estonia, öl in Sweden, øl in Denmark and Norway, alus in Lithuania and Latvia. Hence I like to speak about ales, but I do not intend to refer to the ale-beer or ale-lager classifications.
Nordic refers to the countries of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Sweden and Norway. Baltic countries are formed by Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. All these countries are linked by the Baltic sea, and throughout the history there has been immigration and flow of culture between these countries. Northern Germany has been influential to the history of this area as well. Finland and the Baltic states have received Finno-Ugric and Slavic influences from the east. Through the expansion of the Vikings during 750–1050 AD, the Nordic influence is seen for example in the British Isles.
Farmhouse traditions are alive also in Latvia, but Lars Garshol’s travel story Stone brewing in Latvia seems to be about the only information in English. In Denmark the traditions have faded relatively recently, and there are still people remembering the time. Some farmhouse brewing has survived in Russia as well, especially in the Chuvash republic. See also Lars Garshol’s view on Farmhouse ales of Europe.
Daily and Feast Ales
Farmhouse ales have been made in different strengths for different purposes. Low alcohol small beers have been part of the diet and drank by everyone, children included. In the feasts ale was expected to be rich in taste and strong in alcohol. For example, sahti should have at least 6 % ABV. Besides alcohol content, this division has also a distinct effect on ingredients and brewing techniques. Daily ales should be easy to brew on a weekly basis, while the feast ales should be the best the house has to offer.
There are also medium strength ales of 5–6 % ABV which put smile on lips, but do not stop the work. In Finland and Estonia traditional ales seem to be mostly either small beers or feast ales, but medium strength ales exist in Norway, Sweden and Lithuania.
The ales of alive traditions mentioned earlier are either feast or medium strenght ales. The traditions of small beers seem to be largely extinct, but there might be some well-preserved remnants in the Baltic states. Several modernized versions of traditional small beers are still brewed and sold in northern Europe, like kalja (Finland), svagdricka (Scandinavia), gira (Lithuania) and kvass (Russia). Read Small Beer Called Kalja for details on historic low alcohol farmhouse beers.
Malted and unmalted grains, juniper branches, hops and yeast are the basic ingredients of these ales. Malted barley is the most common base, but also rye, oats and wheat are used in both malted and unmalted forms.
Unfortunately traditional home malting has mostly disappeared, and now most brewers use commercial malts. In Norway and Lithuania some brewers still malt in the traditional way. In Finland some farmers have revived home malting, but to my knowledge nobody malts in the most traditional way in smoke saunas or drying barns.
Juniper is the most important brewing herb in the Nordic and Baltic farmhouse ales. Traditionally the juniper flavor comes from the branches laid on the bottom of the lauter tun filter (see image below) or from juniper infusion (branches infused in hot water). The taste of branches is needle-like and woody, somewhat different than flavor of berries. Hops are used fairly often, but usually in minor quantities. Sahti is often unhopped.
Lithuania is a notable exception to what I just said. Their farmhouse brewers generally do not use juniper, but slightly more hops. Nevertheless, Lithuanian kaimiškas is typically malt-forward, but some versions can be even described as hoppy.
House yeasts are rare these days, but some brewers in Norway and Lithuania are still fermenting with their traditional heirloom yeasts. In the past some houses made both bread and beer with the same yeast, and hence it is natural that many traditional brewers use now baker’s yeast, though commercial. Some use also brewer’s yeast, but in sahti only traditional house yeast or commercial baker’s yeast are allowed. This rule is written in the EU Traditional Specialities Guaranteed appellation of sahti.
Other than aforementioned ingredients have also been used, but during the last hundred years it has been surprisingly rare. The most notable exception is the use of honey (or nowadays sugar) in gotlandsdricke. See Lars Garshol’s take on Nordic brewing herbs.
For those unfamiliar with brewing, I review shortly the essential brewing terms. With very few exceptions, a modern brewery is operated as follows: first malts are mixed to hot water. This procedure is called mashing and the mixture mash. Then, the sweet liquid of malt sugars called wort is drained from the mash in the process of lautering. Finally the wort is boiled with hops, cooled, fermented and packaged.
Accordingly, a modern brewery has always a big kettle for boiling the wort with hops. In the old times farmhouse brewers could not afford big kettles, and their methods evolved around wooden brewing gear. The most traditional farmhouse setup involves two large wooden vessels: A tub for mashing, and another tub or a trough-like vessel, known as kuurna in Finland, for lautering.
Wooden vessels cannot be heated externally, and an old trick is to drop hot stones into the concoction. However, with hot stones long boils would be awkward, and hence the ancient farmhouse brewers skipped the wort boiling step altogether.
This lack of wort boil has a tremendous effect on the beer, and is one of the major traits of Nordic-Baltic farmhouse ales. A beer from a non-boiled wort has a short shelf life, but when fresh, has an exquisite taste of malt and cereals. Due to retained proteins, it also feels nutritious, smooth, and full bodied. An ale completely devoid of boiling steps is called raw ale.
Today many farmhouse brewers use stainless steel equipment, but their brewing process is inherited from ancestors, as if the brewers still had only wooden tubs and a thermometer had not been invented. Some present-day brewers boil the mash instead, which is most likely a remnant from times when the mash was heated up to a boil with hot stones. There are also farmhouse brewers who boil their wort, but the boil time can vary wildly from one minute to five hours, again something completely different to modern commercial breweries.
Typically these ales are fermented warm for a day or two and then transferred to a cool cellar. With house yeasts the traditional fermentation temperature is milk-warm (35–40°C). Often a considerable amount of residual sweetness remains and a slow secondary fermentation keeps yeast active, protecting from staling and souring. These ales are usually served within 1–3 weeks from the brew day.
As you may have noticed from the photos, these farmhouse ales are made in surprisingly big quantities, though still homebrews. See for example the very old looking, but still actively used wooden tubs in the header image. Paavo Pruul, a fine koduõlu brewer from Hiiumaa, Estonia, inherited those tubs from his grandfather. The tubs are designed for producing 100–200 litres (26–53 US gallons) of ale, which is a fairly typical farmhouse batch size.
If you want to brew sahti yourself, read Sahti Recipe and Farmhouse Brewing Tips.
These ales have survived from the arrival of distilled alcohol, onset of cheap industrial beer, the temperance movement in the Nordics, and the soviet reign in the Baltics. Without rich and unique taste these traditions would surely be dead by now. The taste is so different from modern beers that the first-timers may have difficulties to judge if the pint is as it supposed to be. Here is a briefing what to expect.
There are some regional preferences, sort of sub-styles, but distinction is not always very clear, as the variation from brewer to brewer is often enormous. For this reason these traditions are not exactly defined beer styles in the modern sense. Besides, even the same ale can taste different every time, particularly due to differences in age and storage. Although these ales may go sour when they age, sahti in particular, sourness is usually considered a flaw.
The appearance is often turbid, but haziness is more related to high protein content, rather than yeastiness. Some yeast are may be suspended, but obvious sensation of yeastiness is a flaw. Due to proteins, the mouthfeel is typically smooth, and sometimes highly viscous and milkshake-like. In the Nordics these ales are typically served still or with slight carbonation, while in the Baltics farmhouse ales are more often served clearly carbonated. Color ranges from yellow to dark brown. In the Baltics paler examples are more typical, but in many parts of the Nordics reddish brown color is sought-after.
Most examples taste sweet with rich fresh maltiness and graininess. The paler ones are more honeyish and grassy, while the darker ales express dark bread and toffee. Many Lithuanian ales have an unique hay-like taste from local malts. Taste of juniper vary from none to pronounced, more inclined to needle-like taste of branches than berries.
Usually these ales have expressive fruitiness and spiciness from the fermentation. Quite often sahti has a prominent banana aroma, somewhat similar to weizenbocks. However, some brewers prefer their sahti malt-forward with no signs of banana. Some Lithuanian examples may have notes of butter. The overall impression is extremely fresh, nourishing, smooth and drinkable.
In the past these ales would have picked some smokiness from the malting process, but today smoke aroma is rare, except in parts of Norway and Gotland where brewers malt themselves.
These beers are rarely exported, but if you are visiting Finland, Estonia or Lithuania, check the availability of commercial examples from Where to Find Commercial Nordic and Baltic Farmhouse Ales?
In 2014–2015 I wrote the book Sahti: Elävä muinaisolut (in Finnish) with Johannes Silvennoinen and Hannu Nikulainen, and bulk of my research was done during that time. We travelled 8000 km in Finland and Estonian islands, interviewing about 50 sahti and koduõlu brewers, and tasting more than one hundred examples of these ales. I also interviewed experts and scientists on malting, yeast, archaeology, botany and baker’s yeast production. I have been homebrewing sahti since 2004, receiving numerous brewing tips from true farmhouse brewers. For the book I made several brewing tests on farmhouse ingredients, techniques and recipes.
The foundation for sahti knowledge have been laid by a Finnish ethnographer Matti Räsänen, surveys of Suomen sahtiseura (Finnish Sahti Society), and the thesis of Carl Niclas Hellenius from 1780:
Räsänen, Matti (1975). Vom Halm zum Fass: Die Volkstümlichen alkoholarmen Getreidegetränke in Finnland. Suomen Muinaismuistoyhdistys, Kansatieteellinen Arkisto.
Räsänen, Matti (1977). Ohrasta olutta, rukiista ryypättävää: Mietojen kansanomaisten viljajuomien valmistus Suomessa. Jyväskylän yliopisto, Etnologian laitos.
Asplund, Ulla (editor) (1990). Sahtikirja. Suomen Sahtiseura.
Hellenius, Carl Niclas (1780). Finska allmogens bryggnings-sätt. Doctoral thesis for the Academy of Turku. Digitized by The National Library of Finland.
These have been the most important sources on other related farmhouse ales:
Nordland, Odd (1969). Brewing And Beer Traditions In Norway: The Social Anthropological Background Of The Brewing Industry. The Norwegian Research Council For Science And The Humanities.
Salomonsson, Anders (1979). Gotlandsdricka: Traditionell kultur som regional identitetssymbol. Press’ Förlag AB.
Jakovlev, Tormis (1995). Olut Virossa. Tampereen museot.
Markowski, Phil (2004). Farmhouse Ales: Culture and Craftsmanship in the Belgian Tradition. Brewers Publications.
As a background material I have used several books on Finnish folk culture, for example by Toivo Vuorela, Uuno Sirelius, Ilmar Talve and Satu Apo. These books are mostly written in Finnish, but one is also available in English:
Talve, Ilmar (1997). Finnish Folk Culture. Finnish Literature Society.
The references on history and archaeology are listed in History of Farmhouse Ales.
This story was originally published as Introduction to the Nordic and Baltic Farmhouse Ales in August 2016. This story was very long, and I completely restructured and renamed it in January 2017. The section on history was moved to History of Farmhouse Ales. The section on the availability of commercial examples was moved to Where to Find Commercial Nordic and Baltic Farmhouse Ales? I removed the section on shelf life and storage of sahti, which will be its own article later.