Brewing Sahti at The Ale Apothecary

Brewing Sahti at The Ale Apothecary

In July 2019 I was touring Oregon to market my book Viking Age Brew. I wanted to brew sahti farmhouse ale at a local commercial brewery so that people could actually taste what I’m talking about. Luckily The Ale Apothecary in Bend, Oregon answered my collaboration call. This collaboration brew is a fine example of how sahti can be brewed far away from its origins.

I had already interviewed The Ale Apothecary’s founder Paul Arney for the Viking Age Brew and I knew his interest in Nordic farmhouse ales. He had a made a sahti kuurna and brewed a sahti inspired beer Sahati with it. He had been at the Norsk Kornølfestival in Norway. It was natural to contact him first.

I wanted to see The Ale Apothecary for several other reasons as well. Paul Arney has designed a unique brewing process that is the main “ingredient” of the brewery: mashing, lautering, fermentation takes place in the wood. There’s a copper kettle for boiling the wort but even that is not always used. Brewery’s ales typically go through mixed sour fermentation and long aging in barrels. In short, the brewery is a vintage beer shrine!

This collaboration brew was part of the Viking Yeti Beer Tour to the Pacific Northwest with American beer writer Jereme Zimmerman. See Jereme’s tour recap and my wrap-up of the tour highlights. I’m certainly not the first Finn to brew sahti in the USA. See for example Brewing Up A Sahti, a video about a collaboration between Finnish brewer Markku Pulliainen and Dock Street Brewery in Philadelphia.

I brewed sahti with these gentlemen: Seth Klann of Mecca Grade Estate Malt (left), Paul Arney of The Ale Apothecary (middle) and beer writer Jereme Zimmerman.

The Oregonian-Finnish Sahti Recipe

“I’m in Norway,” said Jereme and started to lop off the fir branches.

Everything the Ale Apothecary does has its own fingerprint on it, and therefore we didn’t attempt to brew sahti just like it is done in Finland. On the other hand, I wanted to capture essential features of sahti: a robust malty beer made without the wort boil and served very fresh.

We based the malt bill on Vienna malt because I often brew sahti from it and Paul Arney likes to use Vienna malt from his local craft malthouse Mecca Grade Estate Malt (Madras, OR). I brought dark Finnish rye malt (known as Tuoppi kaljamallas in Finland) which is often used in Finnish sahti. This unique toasted malt adds a touch of rye bread crust and to my American friends its taste reminded Grape-Nuts.

In Finland, sahti is typically fermented with fresh Finnish baker’s yeast but that is a very tricky yeast to carry from one continent to another. Besides, sahti fermented with fresh baker’s yeast goes easily sour if stored warm. Instead, I carried dried flakes of Norwegian farmhouse yeast kveik in my suitcase. This kveik was the original farmhouse version (not lab-isolated) from Sigmund Gjernes’ kveik that I have used and harvested at my home brewery for years.

In my opinion, traditionally handled kveik makes authentic sahti. Before commercial baker’s yeast sahti brewers had their own house yeasts that were handled with methods similar to kveik. Within the European Union, commercial sahti is regulated by the Traditional Speciality Guaranteed appellation and it states that sahti is “fermented using baker’s yeast or harvested yeast”. In my book, kveik counts as harvested sahti yeast but that can be a matter of debate.

Seth Klann and the hay from his Oregonian farm and malthouse, Mecca Grade. The hay is a by-product of growing Kentucky bluegrass seeds.

The Mecca Grade Estate grows also Kentucky Bluegrass seeds in addition to barley. Seth Klann from the estate had brought dry Bluegrass hay which is like fine straw. Since sahti is most traditionally filtered through straws, we decided to add some Kentucky Bluegrass hay to the bottom of the mash-lauter tun. And hey, Jereme is from Kentucky!

Juniper branches are a typical ingredient of Nordic farmhouse ale but according to Paul the local juniper in Bend has a sharp unpleasant flavor. In Bend, I sampled some wild juniper berries and they had the aroma of a paint thinner. Instead, we cut down a fir tree from the brewery’s property and added branches of the fir to the mash. Basically, we chopped a nice Christmas tree into the mash. Fir needles have a nice tart and fruity flavor similar to fresh spruce tips.

Hops? We didn’t need them.

Cutting down fir, preparing Kentucky bluegrass bed for the mash, and starting mashing.

The recipe for 60 gallons (227 liters): 

Original gravity: 1.079 (19°P) 
Final gravity: 1.013 (5.8°P)
Alcohol by volume: around 8 %

309 lb. (140 kg) Vienna malt
11 lb. (5 kg) Dark rye malt (Tuoppi Kaljamallas)
3 oz. (90 g) dried kveik (Sigmund Gjernes)
Fir branches
Bluegrass hay

Layer the bottom of the mash-lauter tun with the bluegrass hay and start scooping the malt onto the top of the hay. Simultaneously, pour in hot water to arrive at the mash temperature of 151 to 154°F (66 to 68°C). Stir carefully to avoid disturbing the hay layer on the bottom. Mix fir branches to the mash. Let the mash stand at this temperature for two hours.

Begin lautering, and recirculate until the wort runs clear. Pull out a small sample of wort for starting the kveik: cool the sample to fermentation temperature and add kveik. With Sigmund’s kveik that would be 100–104°F (38–40°C).

Taste the main wort and judge the flavor: if the fir flavor is very faint, you can add more flavor by steeping fresh fir branches in the wort. Sparge with 176 to 194°F (80 to 90°C) water until the recipe volume is collected.

Chill the wort to fermentation temperature and add kveik. The fermentation typically takes two to three days. Once the most yeast has settled to the bottom, rack the beer into kegs or bottles. You may add a small amount of priming sugar for carbonation.

The Sahti Brew Day

The Ale Apothecary’s brewing setup and batch size were different from my home brewery, and we had to resolve several brewing issues, both beforehand and during the brew day.

At home, I brew with a heated mash tun and when brewing raw ales I usually raise the final mash temperature at least to 167°F (75°C). For raw ales devoid of boiling steps this will be the maximum wort temperature that should pasteurize the wort and all the equipment touching the hot wort.

At the Ale Apothecary, the mash is heated only with hot water and we pondered whether we should accept lower temperature, mash-in at higher temperature or heat the wort after lautering. We decided to simply brew a low-temperature raw ale. With fairly hot sparge water the wort temperature climbed slightly above 158°F (70°C).

Sparging the sahti mash.

Paul took hitting the gravities and temperatures as a challenge. While cooling the wort, Paul shouted: “Are you OK with 101 [Farenheit]”. That is an excellent fermentation temperature for Sigmund’s kveik.

High gravity is an important part of sahti’s flavor profile and I consider 1.079 (19°Plato) to be the minimum original gravity. Since it was hot summertime and the beer was to be served next week, we aimed at this “minimum” gravity.

Yes, this sahti had to be ready in six days. The launching event was a week ahead and the beer was to be transported there a day before. Fermentation, yeast settling, and carbonation in six days. In my home brewery that is a typical schedule for raw ales, but now the batch was bigger, the weather was hotter and the beer needed to be transported. This was a striking contrast for Paul as well: normally the Ale Apothecary’s beers are matured for one or two years before the release!

We woke the dried kveik in the first-wort and after two hours it was already ripping!

To be sure, we pitched far more kveik than farmhouse brewers usually do. This worked well, and two days later I got a text message from Paul “sahti tastes awesome”. The downside of the high pitch was that the fruity-spicy flavors from Sigmund’s kveik were toned-down. Next time I would pitch far less.

The final gravity was 1.013 which is a lot lower than I expected. Perhaps some enzymes survived the low mash and wort temperature and continued to chop sugars in the fermenter. Or, perhaps our yeast spell did its magic (see video below).

Another thing to worry about was souring. Sahti should be sweet and malty but not sour. Sigmund’s kveik doesn’t normally contain souring bacteria but every time I use farmhouse yeast dried traditionally under open air, I think about all the dust and dog hair that settles on the kveik while drying. Usually I keep my farmhouse ales cool after fermentation to prevent accidental souring or refermentation. This time keeping the ale cool at all times wasn’t possible but Sigmund’s kveik has never failed me and it certainly didn’t fail this time.

Pitching kveik with a Finnish yeast spell to scare away bad spirits and cheer the yeast for healthy fermentation. According to the Nordic farmhouse brewing tradition, the louder you shout, the stronger the beer will be.

The Sahti Launch Events

One week later, we launched our collaboration sahti at the legendary Belmont Station Biercafé in Portland. The first impression of the beer aficionados was: Is this 8 % beer really brewed 7 days ago? “Different” and “very drinkable” were typical comments.

A glass of sahti at the Belmont Station. In Finland sahti is typically still but we added a small amount of priming sugar to give a fizz that elevates the aroma.

The beer had a sweet fresh grainy taste of barley and rye with notes of raisins and granola. Fir and bluegrass hay added a delicate background note. The beer was fruity, but not as “kveiky” as I hoped. Mouthfeel was smooth and rounded but not as thick as in Finnish sahti. Overall this was smooth, easy-drinking and yet strong beer just like a Nordic farmhouse feast ale should be. Oh boy, I was relieved to taste that everything was fine.

We delivered one keg from Portland to Seattle, to our next Viking Yeti Beer event in Skål Beer Hall, Seattle. Again, the beer survived the one-day-warm-car travel well and was in top shape. The sahti was served at Ale Apothecary’s tasting room in Bend as well.

I think this was a risky affair but everything worked. Thank Nordic gods for that.

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