Sahti is an ancient Finnish beer style, although even the scholars cannot really tell if it’s always been a beer style or was all beer called Sahti in Finland thousand years ago. Most definitely it has been a beer style for centuries now. Some call sahti a missing link between ancient beers and modern beers. It has been and still is a party drink for special occasions like weddings, midsummer festival, Kekri (pagan New Year’s Eve / Harvest festival) and Christmas for example.
It is a rustic beer; it has very distinctive appearance, aroma and flavors. Sahti has usually very low carbonation or no carbonation at all, since it is kept in barrels which are not sealed to keep the pressure. So sahti was not meant to stay good for a long period.
Nowadays some carbonation might occure since the bottling of sahti has become more common. Traditionally that has not been the case and it changes the overall taste of sahti. Alcohol content is usually between 7 and 13 % -vol. Examples of aromas and flavors below are just to give an idea what to expect, but keep in mind that these are just examples, sahti varies a lot.
- mostly cloudy
- color range from pale to dark reddish brown
- fruits; banana
- from sweet ladies sahti to dry men’s sahti
- banana, dried fruits; plum, raisin, figs
- toffee, caramel
- woody notes from juniper
Sahti is made in hundreds of different ways since almost every household has its own traditional recipes. These recipes brewing methods vary from each other and are transferred to descendants in practice. Hence the old written recipes are not really available. In sahti region of Finland it is quite common that taste and recipes of sahti are quite similar within the village and varies more between the villages. In the old times every village had their own malt-sauna and people learned from the elders. Recipes and yeast was passed along to neighbors if needed, but not so much between the villages.
Basically sahti recipe includes water, malt, juniper/hops and baker’s yeast. Some brewers use juniper and hops, some don’t. All the ingredients vary from brewer to brewer and even more from village to village. There is a real difference between the greater areas whether people use for example raw rye in the recipe.
Late beer guru Michael Jackson was big fan of sahti and he stated that it is one of the ancient beer styles that are still brewed almost the same way. He also studied the craft and visited Finland several times to enjoy and learn about sahti and all the cultural things around it.
Ingredients of Sahti
About the water. There is lot of good fresh water available in Finland. It can be used as it is, but it is a known fact that quite a many brewers make juniper water that they use for sahti. Basically it is just juniper twigs boiled in water, this was used to sterilize the equipment. Same kind of water could be made to be used as sahti’s mash water also.
People have used many kinds of malts for sahti: barley, rye, wheat, oat etc. Malts are crushed very roughly, it has to be coarse to work well. Mainly it is barley malt that most of the sahti brewers use. Unmalted cereals, like raw rye are used more in north-western part of sahti region, whereas brewers at other parts of the region would never use rye at all, malted or unmalted. Also bread has been known to be used for raw material.
In Finland we have special sahti malt available, but it is rumored that it consist roughly 85% pilsner malt and rest is blend of crystal and enzyme malts. Crystal gives color and sweetness and the enzyme malt is in the mix to help the mashing procedure since the temperatures varies a lot. Sahti brewers know this and still make their own mixture of different malts into mash tun according to their recipe.
Nowadays some of the brewers are starting to use lightly smoked barley malts for the process to mimic the taste of old times. Previously, when every village had their own malt-sauna, the method of warming up the saunas temperature while dying the malt meant that malt got lightly smoked during the process. So in the old days sahti might have had smoky notes and people are taking it back to the roots again.
Simplest and usually best way is to use malted barley and maybe little bit dark malted rye for richer taste and darker color. This dark sweet rye malt is the same that people use for brewing kalja. Please see the kalja section for more details about this product.
Other ingredients include hops, juniper twigs, straws of rye. As mentioned earlier some brewers use some, and some don’t. If hops are used, this is for aroma and to help improve shelf time.
Yeast is of course very important ingredient for brewing any kind of beer. Same goes for sahti. The most commonly used yeast is Finnish baker’s yeast, which is available in every grocery store here. Finnish baker’s yeast has been made by same company over 100 years and most of the sahti brewers use this yeast strain.
In the older times people could use the same yeast over and over again once they got the first batch to ferment. Re-useable yeast could be collected during fermentation (the foam on top of sahti) or from the bottom of fermenting vessel after sahti had been drank. Collected yeast was dried on top of the oven or it was bottled fresh and saved in cool cellar for the next time.
Juniper twigs are used to make the juniper water. It has two functions: first water is to sterilize the equipment and later in the process new juniper water can be used as sparging water to rinse the sugars out of malt. Traditionally most of the equipment is made of wood, so besides sterilizing, the first juniper water also puffs and refreshes the wooden barrels and tuns. Juniper twigs are also used during lautering process and like straws of rye, both improve sieving and naturally it will give a hint of flavor during the procedure.
Traditionally there are few types of equipment needed to make sahti. These are reserved just for making sahti and were not to be used for anything else. People have used big cauldrons, from 100 to 200 liters, which are usually in their own little buildings near sauna or in cattle kitchen, to make juniper water and heat up the water for mashing process.
Mash tun could be any old open wooden vessel. This is the tun in which the malt mixture and water are gradually mixed together and the starch turns to sugars. Mixture was heated up by mixing hot water in with wooden paddle. Nowadays mashtuns are more often modern stainless steel kettles.
Then is the kuurna, which is a special kind of lauter tun. Traditionally it is made of one log of aspen, from 1,5 to 3 meters (5 to 10 feet) long and 0,5 meter (1,6 feet) wide and high. The log is cut in half vertically and dimpled hollow. A bunghole is drilled to one end and wooden sticks are inserted on the bottom to support the straws. There has to be space between the bottom of kuurna and the sticks so the wort is able to run off. Kuurna could also be made like a half barrel, the shape is same and it is important so the wort will run off smoothly. Novadays most people uses stainless steel kuurnas.
Fermenter is a standing wooden barrel with spigot. Usually sahti is served straight from this barrel. Wort is collected to barrel, it ferments there and turns to sahti. After first day or two of active fermentation the barrel is transferred to cooler place. After two weeks, sahti can be served from the spigot which is a bit above the bottom. This way all the thrub and yeast that had dropped to bottom, stays on the bottom and sahti can be enjoyed relatively clear. Again nowadays wooden barrels are less popular and stainless steel and food grade plastic barrels has substituted wooden ones.
Haarikka is Finnish name for drinking vessel or tankard for sahti. It usually has two handles for the firm grip. Size varies from small 1 liter (1 quart) haarikka up to 10 liter (2,6 gal) haarikka. Bigger ones are always shared.
In sahti regions of Finland every household has its own recipe. Here are examples of the most common ones. As mentioned in Ingredients –section, malt base varies a lot.
Basic rule of thumb could be 90% malted barley and 10% sweet malted rye for the color. Malt and water ratio for sahti is one part malt and two parts water during mashing. Basically 50 kg (110 lb) sahti malt and 100 liters of water for mashing, and extra water for rinsing to yield 100 liters (26 gal) of sweet wort.
Juniper can be used to season the last of the rinsing water and in kuurna. Amount of juniper twigs depends on desired flavor, start with few twigs and add more next time if needed.
Hop usage is voluntary but usually just a handful of hops for 100 liters (26 gal) of sahti. Amount of yeast is reasonably small; rule of thumb for normal amount is 50 grams (2 oz) of fresh baker’s yeast to 100 liters (26 gal) of wort.
The process of making sahti
As mentioned earlier there are as many recipes for sahti as there are brewers, same goes for brewing process. Everybody has their own style of making it and it varies wildly across the regions. Below is just an example of few methods.
Step 1. The process starts day before the brew day by making the first juniper water in the cauldron. This boiling hot water is used to wash the equipment and can be left in the wooden vessels overnight to puff the equipment so no leaking occurs next day when making sahti.
Step 2. Early morning of the brewing day the appropriate malt mixture is mixed in with hand warm water in mash tun. Right amount of water at this stage would be just enough to moist the malt mixture. Mash tun should be covered well to keep them warm and clean. Then the mash water for later steps in the cauldron is heated up again, little by little.
Step 3. After hour or so, another batch of water is mixed to the mash. This time the water should be so hot that hand could be put in the water, but just for few seconds, and again not too much water, just to make a very thick porridge. Again cover the mash tun well between water add ups.
Step 4 & 5. Keep adding warmer and warmer water every hour. Keep the water temperature between 60 – 74 °C (140 – 160 °F). Mashing should take about 5 hours and last addings of water should be boiling hot. But just the last, it is important to understand that malt and grains turn into a real porridge if the added water is too hot, meaning the starch has not turned into sugars by right temperature. That is not the point; the point is to convert the starch to sugars so it will be runny when collecting the wort. Remember to leave some of the recipes water in cauldron for rinsing. Adding juniper twigs to the water in cauldron at this point is up to everybody’s own taste.
Step 6. During mashing the kuurna should be prepared. Kuurna acts as a lauter tun, so on the bottom are the crosswise sticks and on top of those the straight rye straws should be placed. The straws works as a sieve and is to keep the malt husks above and let the wort run through. Juniper twigs and hops can be placed on top of the straws. Plug the bunghole and Kuurna is ready for lautering.
Step 7. After five or six hours in, the mash will be scooped to Kuurna. Size of the kuurna should be so that all of the mash just fits inside. Mash should set for little while. All vessels for collecting the wort should be ready also.
Step 8. After a little while open the plug a little to let the wort flow to a collecting vessel. The best results are achieved by recirculating some of the wort back on top of the Kuurna few times. Malt bed acts also as a sieve, this is the reason why malts are grinded just very roughly. When the wort seems clear, meaning no husks are coming through anymore, collect the wort to fermenting vessel. At this stage, while collecting, rinse the mash bed with rest of the boiling (juniper) water from the cauldron.
Step 9. While collecting the wort, take a few liters of the wort aside to make a starter for the yeast. Let the wort cool to luke warm and add the baking yeast. It should take hour or two to start fermenting.
Step 10. After the wort has been collected to fermenter, it should be cooled as soon as possible to room temperature. Then the wort is ready and the yeast starter can be poured in.
Step 11. After day or two of active fermentation, sahti should be taken to a cooler place. Fermentation takes about two weeks. Naturally it continues fermenting until the alcohol level rises enough and yeast cannot ferment the sugars anymore. Sahti’s shelf life is maximum one month, after that it usually goes sour. Storing it in near zero centigrade helps it to stay drinkable.
Step 12. Enjoy sahti from haarikka with friends.
Different variations of the process
Brewing can be started with hot water also. And it could be made in the cauldron altogether. Malt mixture and hot water can be mixed in the cauldron and keeping the temperature between 60 – 74 °C (140 – 160 °F) through the mashing process.
Boiling the mash is also common. It helps the sahti to stay good for little longer. Boil can be done in the cauldron, so at Step 7. Scoop the mash to a cauldron and heat it up while mixing with the paddle constantly until wort starts to boil. Long boiling is not recommended, it gives unwanted flavors from husks. When wort starts to boil continue from Step 7. by scooping the wort to kuurna.
Boiling has also been done in mash tun. Traditionally rocks, the size of two fists, were heated in saunas stove until glowing hot and dropped in mash tun before Step 7. It was important to keep mixing the mash so that the hot rocks wouldn’t burn holes to normally wooden equipment. This action could be done few times to get mash to point of boiling. After the wanted temperature was reached process could be continued from Step 7.
Kalja from sahti
This is a traditional low-alcohol beverage. Kalja is easy to make, can also be side product of sahti. Simply, it is fermented left-over wort. While brewing sahti, some households took few more steps to make kalja, and used it as a table beer. This is not very common anymore but has been commonly done in the old days.
Kalja can be done after Step 9. in process of sahti making. After the wort was collected for sahti, it is possible to add boiling hot water to kuurna and soak more sugars and taste out of the mash. Most of the taste and sugars are already collected to sahti, so much less water needed to be used for this stage, only for needs for couple of days. This lighter wort is collected same way and after it is cooled, yeast can be added straight to wort. After day or two of fermentation it was cooled down and ready to drink.
More about kalja in its own post.
Availability of sahti
There are few commercial sahti breweries in Finland, which are dedicated to brew sahti. Find the list of these in back of the book. Also few micro breweries brew sahti every now and then. Since sahti has quite high alcohol content, easiest way to find this beverage is go to sahti region in Finland and visit the state monopoly alcohol shops, called Alko.
Good examples of commercial sahti are Hollolan Hirvi’s Kivisahti, mash is heated by hot stones (stone=kivi in Finnish), Lammin Sahti and Finlandia Sahti.
The best way of tasting sahti is to take part in the annual Finnish sahti championship competition as a spectator. Competition is held at the end of the summer and the venue changes every year.. It is a nice little get-together where everybody is welcome and since people are not able to sell sahti legally they are serving it straight from their car trunks. Just wonder around and ask if they can give you a sample, that’s what everybody does. Spectators are able to taste many kind of different sahti from various sahti areas. Folk music is playing and people are relaxed, at least the ones that are not participating the contest. More about the venues and times please google “sahti sm-kilpailu” or go to http://www.sahti.org/smkilpailu.htm
Sahti and food
Pairing sahti with food has been simple. As mentioned earlier, sahti is a party drink so many of the traditional Finnish buffet dishes go well with sahti. Although, because of the quite high alcohol contents, sahti is traditionally served after the meal in order to avoid the obvious.
To take the pairing a little bit further we have to think the flavors and aromas of sahti. Sahti itself varies a lot and everybody has their own favorites but keeping in mind the usual characteristics it could be one of the best pairs with blue cheese.
Since there is malty taste, even sweetness and sourness in sahti it will go well with traditional dark sour rye bread, which is still very popular in Finland.
If you are really interested about making sahti, then for example Kuurne Ry arranges sahti courses in Finland. They malt their own barley and brew big batches of sahti. All the information on their site is only in Finnish, so translator might be needed: http://www.sahtiopisto.fi/index.php
Sahti is protected
Using a name “sahti” in commercial product is restricted. Sahti has “Traditional Speciality Guaranteed” for it’s name. Sahti got protection for it’s name and brewing method in 2002. Links to European Comission’s declaration:
Dictionary of Sahti
Haarikka – Vessel for drinking sahti. It has two handles and size varies from 1 liter up to 10 liters.
Juniper – Ever green plant with needle like leaves. Juniper grows wild in Finland and all over the world. Berries are used as a spice for food and alcoholic beverages, as are the juniper twigs for sahti.
Kalja – low-alcoholic malt beverage
Kuurna – traditional wooden lauter tun
Malt – traditionally in Finland malts were made from barley and rye in community malt saunas. Dry barley grains were soaked for two days, germinated for two days and (smoked &) dried in mild sauna for 20 hours or so. Nowadays there is industrially produced special sahti mix available. Rye malt requires less germination time but is made same way as barley.
Sauna – holy place for Finnish, and it was used for drying and smoking malts and in some households sahti was also made in sauna. Basically sauna is place for people to bath and wash themselves. In the old days sauna was also used to give birth, heal certain sicknesses and wash the deceased close ones before burial. Reason for all these actions to take place in sauna was hygiene, sauna is considered to be cleanliest place in Finnish households. Sauna is heated often and temperature varies from 65 up to 100 °C (150 – 200 °F). It is good temperature for drying the malts and even mashing.
Mash – Mixture of water and malts. Purpose of this process is to turn the starch to sugars at the right temperature; between 60 – 75 °C (140 – 170 °F).