Kalja (Low-alcohol table beer)
The word Kalja has been around for centuries and it has always been used to describe low-alcohol beer, although some people use it for all kinds of beer. But really, kalja is beer style and in Finland it is made by many households and lunch restaurants to be served with food.
Traditionally kalja has been part of everyday life and during the hot summers on the hay field working people needed to drink a lot. This is why farm wives had kalja brewing throughout the summer, it was always available. Kalja was the best drink for thirsty families, because it tasted better than water and kalja contains salts, vitamins and minerals. During the work, kalja cask was stored in the hay barn or in the ditch for coolness.
The main use of kalja even these modern times is as table beer accompanying lunch and dinner or maybe after sauna with nice sausage. Many of Finns still use it also as a thirst quencher. Christmas time and other celebrations which include eating with the families are usually accompanied by kalja as one of the served beverages.
Kalja has distinctive characteristics on aroma and flavors. It is dark brown colored beer; sweetness varies from quite sweet to dry. Usually quite light bodied. Dry versions are great thirst quenchers during the summer and sweeter ones are most enjoyable during cold winter. Kalja has malty, bready and caramel flavors. Even some sahti flavors might be noticeable, since the same normal baking yeast is usually used and it might give light fruity flavors to kalja. Carbonation is from none to medium.
Kalja is made by many people using different recipes, although because it is more common than sahti, it does not have that big of secret recipe competition going on. It is common beverage and everybody makes it like they like to drink it, not that big of a deal. Kalja recipes are not treasured as sahti recipes.
Historically kalja have been important factor tax wise and during the prohibition. Beer has been taxed for a long time now, but kalja has been categorized as food product, so for centuries it was not taxed. That of course led to misuse of the law and during nineteenth century kalja could have very strong alcohol content. Kalja was then and now brewed by households, restaurants, inns and breweries. Because it was not controlled by the authorities, it is said that in some hinterland area people only drank strong kalja and not at all the taxed beer.
During the prohibition kalja was the one and only beer type beverage that was allowed to brew by breweries or households. That helped few breweries to survive over those years. During the prohibition the alcohol levels were very controlled, as it still is today. Nowadays few breweries brew kalja commercially and those are available widely. Examples of commercial kalja are Olvi’s Kotikalja and Sinebrychoff’s Perinnekalja.
Kalja is a Finnish word for low-alcohol beer as mentioned above. In Russia, equivalent is kwas and Estonians calls it kali. Russian kwas is interesting since they use real rye bread as an ingredient for brewing kwas. A little bit more about that below.
Ingredients and equipment
Basic ingredients for kalja are water, sweet dark rye malt, maybe sugar and yeast. Any good drinkable water will do fine. Sugar is usually normal refined sugar, but experimenting with different fermentable sugars can produce interesting results. Yeast used for kalja is mainly Finnish baker’s yeast, but then again experimenting with different kind of yeasts is always good idea. Try some Belgian ale yeast strains and you might be positively surprised. Also dried baker’s yeast can be used, but use it only half of the amount of fresh yeast.
Rye has been big part of the Finnish dairy. Finns have grown this sturdy grain for food at least 1500 years for now. No wonder that it has been used for brewing beer typed beverages for long. Nowadays rye malt used in kalja is not any old malted rye. This is roasted to dark, already sweet rye malt. Kalja malt is sold crushed in various size of packaging. It is easy to use and does not need mashing, it gives colour and flavors to kalja. Kaljamallas (special malt for kalja) is available in almost every normal grocery store in Finland. To make things even more easier Kaljamallas is nowadays also available as an extract.
Laihian Mallas is the company that produces kalja malts in Finland. If interested making this beverage contact information can be found here: www.laihianmallas.fi also in English.
Equipment wise making kalja is easy too. Good food grade bucket with lid for fermentation is needed and pot or kettle for boiling water. Some kind of sieve is recommended if making kalja from malt, but if using extract even that is not needed. As always with brewing, the hygiene is important. Brewing and fermentation is natural process so cleanliness has to be the most important key for all beverage recipes to succeed.
It takes only 2 -3 days to make this beer from scratch to drinkable beverage. Very basic recipe for kalja is:
5 liters of water
3 dl of special kalja malt
2 dl of sugar
1 tsp of baker’s yeast
Put sugar and malts into the fermenting bucket. Boil the water and pour it on top. Let it rest under the lid until body temperature, 37 °C (100 °F) is optimum. Then add the yeast and cover it loosely with lid or clean cloth. Let the beer ferment in warm room temperature for 12 to 24 hours.
After active fermentation sieve the beer, bottle it to for example soda bottles and put it in the fridge or cool cellar for 24 hour. Make sure that the bottles can handle a little bit pressure and bottles have to be washed well, preferably sterilized.
Then it is ready for you to enjoy! Depending on hygiene level kalja stays good for week or few. The older it gets, more carbonation occurs and drier it gets.
If using extract: follow the instructions from the jar to get amounts right. Otherwise the procedure is the same and sieving can be skipped.
Variations for making kalja: use hops or even juniper twigs or berries with malt, maybe different kind of sugars or yeast. Nobody prevents you making it more carbonated by adding a little bit sugar while bottling and leaving it ferment in a room temperature for one day, but be careful so the bottles don’t explode.
Some people does not even ferment the wort, just mixes rye malt, boiling water and maybe bit of sugar, lets the wort cool down, sieves it and enjoys that. Although this last version is not any kind of beer because no fermentation happens and if trying this non-alcoholic beverage even more attention should be paid to hygiene.
Russian kwas – kalja
Russian kwas is a slightly different product. No malted rye is used but instead dark sour rye bread is the “malt base”. Basic kalja recipe for 5 liters applies, but instead of 3 dl of kalja malt use 300g of dried sour rye bread. For variation, sometimes two tablespoons of sultanas are added to the mix.
In normal household hard leftovers and end pieces of rye bread is collected and left to dry. These bread pieces are crushed or diced and boiling water is poured over those. Sometimes little bit sugar is added and when the “wort” is lukewarm yeast is added. It ferments about 24 hours and after that, it is sieved and bottled. Like Finnish kalja, it is drinkable after day or two but kwas gets better after one week.
Kalja and food
First of all, kalja is great base liquid for meat stews and different casseroles because this beer does not include hops. So it does not matter how long it’s cooked on the stove or in the oven and reduced, the liquid doesn’t get bitter as hopped beers tend to do. Kalja is really a natural accompaniment and ingredient to food.
Kalja is quite light and has earthy malty taste. This already indicates that kalja can go well with earthy flavors like mushrooms, game pates, stews or casseroles. Kalja turns out to be quite good all-around beverage for traditional Finnish food. Light carbonation helps to clear the palate for the next mouthful.