The Month of Sahti Art​icles

The Month of Sahti Art​icles

In February I picked fruits of beer writing during the last six months. Within a week, my articles on sahti farmhouse ale appeared in both Zymurgy Magazine (American Homebrewer Association) and Olutposti (Finland’s Beer Society).

Zymurgy’s article is what I would say a definitive introduction to sahti, and my best effort so far. It was nice to have SAHTI – FINNISH YOUR BEER in the cover of a major homebrewing magazine with a circulation of over 46,000. The article includes a recipe of Olavi Viheroja, the most triumphant sahti brewer in the history of the of the Finnish National Sahti Competition. As far as I know, his recipe hasn’t been published before. When I observed Olavi’s brewing in August 2018, it was probably the first time when his recipe was written down. As a side note, I have another great sahti master’s recipe lined up for Brewing Nordic.

Olutposti’s article was entertaining documentation of an eight-day road-trip to sahti heartlands in August 2018. Since I was traveling with experts specializing in farmhouse brewing traditions, I simply had to write for the Finnish audience what these experts have to say about sahti. I got very good comments from beer writers Lars Marius Garshol (Norway) and Martin Thibault (Canada), as well as brewmaster Amund Polden Arnesen (Eik & Tid, Norway).

To put it shortly, although similar alive traditions of farmhouse beers have remained elsewhere in the Nordic and Baltic countries ( koduõlu in Estonia, gotlandsdricke in Sweden, maltøl in Norway, the kaimiškas beers of Lithuania), Garshol, Thibault and Polden were surprised about the marked and well-established role of sahti in the Finnish culture. Finns know their sahti, and also the brewers know each other fairly well. On the other hand, our guests were surprised of how similar sahti brewing process was across the 13 municipalities we visited. It seems the well-established culture has also lead to some homogenization of traditions. During the trip, we also talked about a lot about the main ingredients of sahti (baker’s yeast, malt, and juniper), and some of that talk was documented in the article. Thibault has documented some of the sahti adventures at his web site Les coureurs des boires (in French).

In February I completed another long term goal, giving a course on traditional brewing for Finnish re-enactment and history enthusiasts,  Pirkkalan Muinaisaikayhdistys. I have taught brewing sahti and modern beer before, but now I was testing the waters of how to pack hands-on brewing, history, and tradition and into an easy-going six-hour course. The challenge is that traditional sahti brew day usually lasts around 12 hours. I think the concept worked well, and surely more traditional brewing courses will follow.

My next malty endeavors include brewing with Nordic farmhouse brewing techniques purely for the sake of flavor, instead of following the tradition. How does raw ale porter with kveik and hop tea sound?

Sahti article in Olutposti magazine
My sahti article in Olutposti magazine reported to Finnish beer geeks how international beer experts view sahti.


Frost and Hibernation

Frost and Hibernation

The dark winter months between November and February drive me into a state of hibernation. I tend to work a lot, but only later in the spring, I start to realize the achievements. I can also recognize the seasons in my writing. Winter texts are usually seriously fact-packed while the summer texts are more in the easygoing story-telling mode. 

Despite the hibernation, I have now made the final corrections to my forthcoming book, Viking Age Brew, to appear in June 4, 2019. I will introduce the book later with a background story, but a preview is already shown at Brewing Nordic Books page, and the book is sold at online bookstores like Amazon.

At the moment I’ fixing travel plans for this year. I will be marketing my book in Oregon and Washington states in July 2019. Oregon Brewers Festival in Portland and an event at Nordic Museum in Seattle are already in the schedule, but other events will be planned as well. I will announce the details when I know more. I try to meet beer enthusiasts, brewers, and medieval-Viking geeks as much as I can.

Another almost confirmed event is a fabulous Nordic farmhouse ale event Norsk Kornøl festival in Hornindal, Norway in October 2019. In Finland, the most likely bigger events are OlutSatama (Jyväskylä) in June, Helsinki Beer Festival in April, the Medieval Market of Turku in June, the National Sahti competition (Hartola) in August and OlutExpo (Helsinki) in October. Meanwhile, in February I’m giving a course on traditional brewing in Pirkkala, Finland.

The colder it gets, the more beautiful winter is. This is my backyard in January at -28°C.



Raising a Puppy and Finishing a Book

Raising a Puppy and Finishing a Book

In October I traveled to Stockholm with my wife to pick up a Scottish deerhound puppy. A week later I found out that I need to do the final edit to my book on sahti. Training a puppy and finishing a book at the same time isn’t exactly my idea of fun, but now the deerhound named Helga is almost house-trained and the book is very close to a completion.

Now that I have time to pause and think, I realize that in the past few months have been very eventful when it comes to farmouse ales. In August we did an amazing eight-day tour in the sahti districts with a team of Norwegian, Canadian and Finnish beer geeks. We started from the national sahti competition, and then visited 13 home breweries and five commericial ones on all major sahti districts. We saw three sahti brewing sessions, a craft malt house, and a farmhouse museum. We enjoyed sauna, traditional Finnish foods and the lakeside nature.

It took few weeks to process all the data I gathered: around 700 photos (after deleting bad ones), plenty of stories, and three detailed recipes from sahti masters. One recipe is reserved for an article appearing in English in winter 2019 (more about that later) and the other two will appear in Brewing Nordic.

While recovering from the book project, new quests haves started to spring to my mind. Brewing with pre-industrial farmhouse gear and techniques will certainly be one of those quests and I have already started to acquire wooden vats suitable for medieval and Viking Age brewing demonstrations.

Old wooden vats for historical brewing
Buying old wooden brewing gear is surprisingly easy in Finland. The difficulty is that most vats are built for brewing 100-200 L of ale for big feasts, and not easily transported to brewing demonstrations. I found these vats suitable for mashing and fermenting from a local junk shop. When I find a kuurna (lauter tun) I’m ready to fire up brewing stones.


Helga, Scottish deerhound
This sneaky little devil, a four-month-old Scottish deerhound named Helga, is keeping me busy. Photo by Ari Lehtiö.
Brewing Taari at the Medieval Market of Turku

Brewing Taari at the Medieval Market of Turku

At the end of June I traveled to Turku with five kilograms of sweet and dark rye breads in my bag. I had baked these special taari breads for a traditional Karelian-Baltic farmhouse ale taari that I helped to brew at the Turku Medieval Market

Jouko Ylijoki from Olu Bryki Raum brewery invited me to this medieval fair. Jouko is a veteran of medieval fairs and his crew had built an impressive outdoor brewery and tavern where the audience could follow the brewing demonstration and sample the ancient ales of Olu Bryki at the same time. The Medieval Market on the  whole  is a very large event, and there were 160,000 visitors during four festival days. The fabulous photos of this post were taken by Sami Brodkin.

I have been searching data about taari from Karelian cookbooks and ethnographical texts, and I’m now very close to understanding how this very unusual type of historical ale has been brewed. Perhaps one more test brew, and I can publish the findings.

Taari breads for brewing
I baked these taari breads from unmalted and malted rye at home. They are kind of malt extract of the past: crumble them into a vat, pour in water, and add yeast (or let ferment spontaneously). Taari is usually brewed into a vat that has a straw or juniper branch filter on the on the bottom, and the grain solids get sieved off just before drinking.

After Turku I spend a week at a summer cottage by the lake, and there I finally managed to document the last story from my maltøl tour to Norway a year ago: Commercial Farmhouse Maltsters and Brewers Around Stjørdal. This story feature some of the best photos I took on this tour.

Now I’m planning an eight-day sahti tour for August, in which we will be visiting around twenty domestic and commercial brewers all around sahti heartlands. Some of the photos, stories and recipes will eventually appear here at Brewing Nordic and perhaps in some beer magazines. In the meantime, I will throw some snapshots to Facebook and Twitter pages.



Knight at Turku Medieval Market
Also distinguished nobles visited our sahti tavern at the Medieval Market.
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.