How would you like your ale? Raw, please.
Raw ale refers to a traditional farmhouse brewing technique with no wort boil. Unquestionably the boil has its advantages but so does leaving the wort raw. Outstanding farmhouse ales have been brewed with the raw ale technique.
How can raw ale be modern? The old raw farmhouse brewing techniques can be applied for creating new flavorful beer. That’s when a raw ale becomes modern. Nearly all kinds of beers can be raw: malty, hoppy, herbal, or sour.
In this guide, I’ll show you how to brew tasty modern raw ales that you can rarely buy. This first part of the guide deals with frequently asked questions and recipe design. The second part Raw Ale Brewing Techniques and Recipes is all about practical brewing tips. If you are brewing traditional or historic raw ales, such as sahti or Norwegian farmhouse ale, you’ll learn a lot about brewing them as well.
I have homebrewed boiled-wort beers since 1998 and raw ales since 2004. For years traditional sahti was my only raw ale. In 2015 I added traditional Norwegian and Lithuanian farmhouse ales to my lineup. Gradually a new world opened up when I started to use raw brewing techniques for creating new flavors. Today many of my best homebrews are hybrids of traditional farmhouse ales and modern beers. I still brew boiled-wort beers but raw ales have become an important part of my brewing toolbox.
The raw ale techniques are rooted in farmhouse brewing but in this guide I don’t attempt to follow any traditions. I’m simply interested in brewing the best possible beer. Nevertheless, I highly recommend exploring the fascinating world of traditional farmhouse brewing, as documented for example in my book Viking Age brew and Lars Marius Garshol’s Historical Brewing Techniques. If want to brew a traditional raw ales, start with my stories Sahti Recipe and Farmhouse Tips or Brewing Norwegian Farmhouse Ale in Hornindal. Jereme Zimmerman’s Brewing Nordic Farmhouse Raw Ale is a nice introduction too.
What Is Raw Ale?
In principle, raw ale could be defined as:
Raw ale is a beer brewed without mash or wort boiling.
However, things are not that simple, as Lars Marius Garshol noted in his blog post Raw ale. Some farmhouse brewers boil only a share of wort or some boil so briefly that the beer tastes like raw ale. Some sahti brewers boil their mash (see for example Brewing Sahti Pertunmaa) and leave the wort unboiled. This kind of sahti is still more like a raw ale although the raw character is less pronounced.
Interestingly, in some sahti regions, raw sahti means that the mash hasn’t been heated hot enough. Sahti folks using this term claim that raw sahti has inferior flavor and messes up the stomach. They are not against raw ale technique – they are against too low brewing temperatures.
I have brewed boiled mash sahti a few times and it has produced excellent beer. But I like the unusuality of raw flavor. When brewing raw ale, I want it properly raw. In my recipes below, 80°C (176°F) is the maximum temperature for the mash and wort.
Overview of the Raw Brewing Process
I will discuss the brewing process in detail in the second part of this guide but below is a quick summary to get you oriented. A modern raw ale is typically brewed like this:
- Mash with a single infusion or step mash.
- Lauter, sparge and cool wort. Some brewers heat the wort for pasteurization before cooling.
- Ferment with your favorite yeast (or mixed culture for sour ales).
- Carbonate and package.
- Drink fresh, unless it is an aged sour ale.
This is how hops and other flavorings enter the process:
- If you want hop bitterness, boil hops in a small amount of water. This is called hop tea.
- Add hops to mash, hot wort, or fermenter when you want hop aroma and flavor.
- The same methods apply to other flavorings too, such as brewing herbs or juniper.
The procedure hardly differs from traditional brewing. Farmhouse brewers know incredibly well what gives the best flavor!
Why Leave the Wort Unboiled?
Raw and boiled-wort beers are different kinds of beverages, both with a rich heritage of their own. I feel that understanding the old and new brewing techniques makes me a better brewer and drinker. There are several other reasons to brew raw ales as well.
In this guide, I emphasize the unusual raw ale flavor and extremely simple no-boil brewing process. I’ll give you one example: raw pale ale is one of my favorite beers. I can brew it in four hours and it will be ready to drink in one week. It has extremely fresh malt and hops flavors, in addition to raw ale flavors described in the next section. Personally I prefer pale ales over IPAs but I think raw ale is a great technique for hazy New England IPAs.
If you view brewing as cooking and want to brew in the kitchen without elaborate brewing equipment, the simple no-boil brewing is perfect for you. For me a shorter and simpler brew day means more test brews and a continuous supply of fresh beer.
If you want to taste traditional Nordic and Baltic farmhouse ales, in most parts of the world you need to brew them yourself. Finnish sahti, Estonian koduõlu in Estonia, Sweden’s gotlandsdricke, the kornøl of Norway, or kaimiškas of Lithuania are usually raw ales. And if you are into historic brewing, you’ll want to know how beer was brewed before big metal kettles. Iron Age and early medieval Europeans, the Vikings, and the Celts brewed raw ales. I discuss the history of raw ales extensively in Viking Age Brew.
Raw Ale Flavor
The raw ale brewing technique typically adds an unusual and rustic flavor that makes this beer category so fascinating.
Compared to a boiled-wort beer, raw beer has a stronger taste of fresh cereals. Simply put, an unboiled ale is closer to a barley field. The wort boil removes proteins and polyphenols from beer and when this stuff remains in beer, it adds a distinctive flavor and mouthfeel. Due to proteins and polyphenols, raw ales taste more nourishing.
Raw ales can be brewed with hops and various other seasonings but outstanding raw beer can be brewed only from malt, yeast, and water. The proteins and polyphenols counterbalance the sweet maltiness. A raw ale tastes dryer than a boiled-wort ale with a similar original and final gravity readings.
The proteins can add unusual milky and umami flavors as if someone had spiked your pint with something odd but very flavorful. The stuff not removed by the boil feeds the yeast and that can enhance or alter fermentation flavors.
Raw ales typically have a soft and smooth mouthfeel with silky oiliness. Something similar can be obtained with wheat and oat malts, but not quite. High gravity raw ales like sahti can even have a thick milkshake-like texture.
The raw ale flavors described above aren’t usually pungent. A well-made raw ale is incredibly tasty and drinkable, just like any good honest beer.
Doesn’t Raw Ale Go Sour Without a Boil?
Usually no. Hot enough and long enough mash temperature effectively pasteurizes the wort. Some thermotolerant bacteria may survive from mash to the wort but then these bacteria are overpowered by yeast.
I have brewed many raw ales with brewer’s yeast and laboratory isolates of kveiks, and none of them have turned sour. Traditional Nordic and Baltic raw farmhouse ales are supposed to be non-sour and farmhouse brewers use several methods to avoid sourness, such as storing the ale cold after fermentation.
Traditional sahti often goes sour if stored at room temperature. I’m convinced that sahti going sour has to do mainly with baker’s yeast, not the unboiled wort. In fact, Suomen Hiiva baker’s yeast (the most common sahti yeast) mabeer sour so predictably that some Finnish craft brewers use it for sour ales (with or without wort boil). Also, some original farmhouse kveiks contain bacteria that will give a sour taint if not handled according to clever farmhouse methods.
Admittedly, skipping the boil makes the beer slightly more vulnerable to souring bacteria. Raw ales contain more food for bacteria and they usually have higher pH. This is not an issue when the brewing equipment is cleaned and sanitized well.
Accordingly, properly brewed raw ales don’t go sour. Nevertheless, raw ales are excellent bases for sour ales. In the past, Berliner Weisse was raw ale.
How Long Does Raw Ale Last?
The answer depends strongly on who you ask.
I feel that no-boil ale does get stale sooner than boiled-wort beer. Since outstanding freshness is what I especially like in raw ale, I find staleness a critical flaw. I’m very picky about it because I’m almost always stocked with extremely fresh beer. I like to drink most of my raw ales in two months from brewing. However, some of my raw ales (very strong or brewed with rye) have peaked after six weeks and remained excellent for months. Raw sour ales store extremely well. I have an outstanding five-year-old raw sour ale in my cellar.
Then, several Norwegian brewers and beer experts, Lars Marius Garshol included, have said that well-made raw ale will keep for over a year. They are usually referring to ales with at least 6 % ABV.
Over months of storage raw ales change hugely. Some flavors fade and some remain interesting. Hop aroma and fresh maltiness are lost first. The flavors of juniper, smoked malt, and fermentation can remain tasty longer. Staleness can be transformed into elegant aged flavors. A lot depends on the beer and the preferences of a drinker. and storage conditions. Cellaring slows staling and can extend the shelf life considerably.
Traditional Nordic and Baltic farmhouse ales do not always store well. Some of them may get a sour taint or re-ferment unpredictably when stored for months. Especially sahti, koduõlu, and kaimiškas are meant to be consumed fresh and longevity is not even expected.
In any case, the shelf life of raw ale is no worse than with New England IPA. I don’t find this problematic.
Isn’t DMS a Problem with No Boil?
Malt contains a precursor of DMS (Dimethyl Sulfide). In the modern brewing process, this precursor is first converted to DMS and then most DMS evaporates in the boil. However, if too much DMS survives into the final beer it gives an aroma of cooked corn or pea soup. I understand this concern. I have noticed this off-putting aroma in some commercial and homemade beers.
The precursor is converted to DMS when the temperature of the mash or wort goes above 80–85°C (176-185°F). If you don’t heat your mash or wort above that temperature you generate very little DMS. The precursor does not give nasty aromas. For this reason, DMS isn’t usually a problem in raw ales. I have tasted hundreds of raw ales and only a few times I have sensed DMS. These have been sahtis and I suspect that the brewer brought the wort to a brief boil.
Taking a boiled-wort recipe and skipping the boil rarely makes a good raw ale. I’ll discuss raw ale recipe design issues next.
Gravity and Sweetness
In boiled-wort beers, brewers add bitterness to counterbalance the sweetness. In raw ales it’s the other way round: brewers are bumping up gravity and sweetness to counterbalance the proteins and polyphenols of raw wort.
Below the gravity of 1.060 (around 15 Plato), raw ale may taste lacking or too dry. Brewing low to medium strength raw ales is more challenging but not impossible. In the second part of this guide I introduce recipes Raw Wheat Ale and Hell Bent for Pilsner that are very tasty at the gravity 1.055 (13.5 Plato).
I feel that tasty session ales are easier to brew with the wort boiling. Skipping the boil gives a richer mouthfeel but at the same time the flavor can become dry if the gravity is low. Pale caramel malts (20–40 EBC or 8-15 SRM) could be used to increase sweetness to low alcohol raw ales. Norwegian brewery Nøgne Ø brews a generously hopped alcohol-free raw ale called Himla Humla that has received good ratings.
I rarely brew raw ales above 9 % ABV because high alcohol content makes a sipping beer and may prolong the conditioning time. I want my raw ales fresh and drinkable.
No-boil ales need not have any bitterness but moderate bitterness fit into many raw ale recipes well.
Malt Selection for No-Boil Ales
Each grain and malt seem to taste different in a raw ale than in a boiled-wort beer. This opens up a new world to explore.
But the raw ale world is different. Some malt bills that have worked well for boiled-wort beers have produced unimpressive raw ales. In my experience very simple malt bills mostly consisting of base malts work better with unboiled ales. Tinkering with complex recipes and specialty malts can lead to muddled flavors where specialty ingredients do not shine. Nordic and Baltic farmhouse brewers usually brew with only one or two malts.
For me, raw ales are a celebration of high-quality base malts. Pilsner, pale ale, Vienna, Munich, wheat, rye, or smoked malt each add a distinctive taste to a raw ale when used in substantial amounts.
Most of my best raw ales have been fairly pale. Reddish-brown sahti with dark rye malt is an exception to the rule. I have brewed an OK raw porter ale but great dark raw ales remains a challenge for me. Roasted grains add dryness and can enhance cereal flavors. In my limited experience, roasted grains need to be used with restraint in a raw ale.
Hoppy Raw Ales
Some Lithuanian raw ales can be described as bitter but most traditional Nordic and Baltic farmhouse ales aren’t hoppy at all. Nevertheless, any level of hop bitterness, aroma and flavor can be easily brewed into a raw ale.
When brewing hazy New England IPA, brewers usually include plenty of wheat and oats to create protein-polyphenol complexes that remain after the boil. These complexes make the IPA hazy and convoy more hop compounds into the final beer. It works, but it’s the hard way of brewing NEIPA. The easy way is to leave the wort unboiled. Then single pale ale malt will do naturally the same trick.
Raw IPA can taste fairly similar to a hazy boiled-wort IPA, as noticed in a Brülosophy Exbeeriment. Loads of hops will mask the raw ale character. That’s OK if you want hoppy beer. If you want to retain the taste of unboiled wort, don’t go overboard with hops.
I’ll discuss the raw ale hopping techniques in detail in the second part of this story.
Boiled-wort beers often taste lacking without hops. The insipid and unbalanced flavor screams for at least some kind of bittering agent. This is rarely a problem with raw ales. Therefore, no-boil brewing makes excellent herbal ales. In Viking Age Brew I discussed extensively medieval and Viking Age brewing herbs, such as bog myrtle and yarrow. When I brew purely for flavor, my Top 5 beer flavorings in Spring 2021 besides hops are:
- Juniper branches
- Bog myrtle
- Ground ivy
All these plants fit perfectly into raw ale recipes. Extracting Juniper branch flavor requires a bit more effort and I describe the best practices in my story Brewing with Juniper, Spruce, Fir, and Pine. The other herbs listed above, as most wild and culinary herbs, are easily handled with the same techniques as hops. It’s a new world to explore.
Sour Raw Ales
Occasionally I brew ales fermented with Lactobacillus and Brettanomyces. Raw wort is so good base for sour ales that I don’t bother boiling wort for sours. When a sour ale is brewed to a raw wort you can usually sense a creamier mouthfeel and touch of umami. Raw wort is a different canvas for fermentation flavors.
My base method for sour ales is to co-pitch kveik and lactic acid bacteria to raw wort. Both ferment well at body temperatures. With lactic acid tartness, the fruity flavors of kveik can taste like the actual fruits. The second runnings of sahti is an excellent base for this kind of sour ale.
I also brew sours with the so-called solera method. In the beer world, solera means a fermenter with neverending mixed fermentation: I pull out a part of the sour ale for bottling and top up with a non-sour ale. My solera fermenter has been going since the late 2000s and it contains several strains of Brettanomyces, kveiks, and wild yeasts along with souring bacteria. Normally I top up the solera with leftover raw ales. With this method, beers past their prime freshness get an esteemed second life.
Commercial Raw Ales
Traditional and modern raw ales are being brewed commercially around the world but in most places, commercial raw ales are difficult to find. In the Nordic and Baltic countries, perhaps a handful of breweries make regularly beers that I would describe as modern raw ales.
Although for me no-boil is simpler than boil, commercial breweries may find it the opposite. Almost all breweries are built for boiled-wort beers. Also, the market is set for boiled-wort beers and raw ale does not sound something consumers would screamingly demand. Nevertheless, I feel that the obstacles in brewing raw ales for sale are more cultural and mental than technical.
I interviewed Norwegian brewer Torkjel Austad of Bygland Bryggeri when writing this guide. Bygland Bryggeri is a brewing company that brews both traditional and modern ales in several breweries in Norway. The beers are sold in pubs and stores in Norway. Bygland Bryggeri makes commercial versions of Norwegian farmhouse homebrews, most of them raw ales. They also brew modern raw ales, such as raw IPAs.
Byggland Bryggeri sells their raw ales canned. The cans do not require cold storage and Torkjel says the shelflife is similar to boiled-wort beers. Torkjel doesn’t see commercial production of raw ales problematic. The stability of raw ales is guaranteed by pasteurizing the wort at 85°C (185°F) before fermentation – and using kveik cultures with only the yeast strains, and not any of the bacteria which some kveik cultures have.
Norwegian brewery Eik & Tid brews oak-aged mixed fermented raw ales. Their beers are tart hybrids of modern beer and Nordic farmhouse ales. The brewery is designed for no-boil ales and they don’t even have the wort boil kettle. Excellent examples of modern raw ales or new Nordic beer!
Renowned Norwegian brewery Nøgne Ø has made several interesting tradition-inspired and modern raw ales.
Unfortunately the beers mentioned above are rarely exported. For availability of traditional ales in their homelands, see my story Finding Commercial Nordic and Baltic Farmhouse Ales and Larsblog’s Finding farmhouse ale in Norway.
This finishes the first part of this guide. Read the second part Raw Ale Brewing Techniques and Recipes and you are ready for raw brewing!