Brewing with Olavi the champion

<< 2021-05-22 13:26 >>

The barn where the brewhouse is. Note the hops climbing the wall.

We drove along dirt roads through seemingly empty forest for half an hour, the dust curling lazily behind us. Eventually we turned onto a road with a sign saying Viherojantie, "Viheroja road." That meant we were getting close, because we were going to brew with Olavi Viheroja, who lives on the farm with the same name, and the road was named after the farm. (This was part of the Finnish sahti expedition of 2018.)

The farm was a small idyll: apple trees, a small gray wooden house, and a brick-and-wood barn. Behind the barn were fields, and more forest. And in the middle of the yard we were met by, to my surprise, four people. There was Olavi himself, a quiet, unassuming man in his 70s, and his wife Anneli, but also his daughter Tuula and her husband Harri.

Olavi is known for being the most successful brewer in the history of the Finnish sahti championship, having won it three times, and come second twice. But, it turned out, his daughter Tuula is also a sahti brewer, and a very capable one: in last year's championship she placed second.

Olavi outside the door to the brewhouse.

Olavi said he learned to brew from his father and a neighbour back in the old days when they made their own malts. He took up brewing again around 1990, as a hobby. Then in 2003 Tuula suggested that he should join the local championship, and the second time he actually won the national championship. His recipe is no longer exactly the original one, because he's adopted some tricks from his neighbours. As he says, "you can steal knowledge."

They showed us into the room at the end of the barn, a room the Finns (in translation) call the "cow kitchen". Despite the name it was not really a kitchen, but rather a room with running water and a boiler for heating water, where milk utensils and hands were washed. This made it ideal for converting into a brewery, which is what Olavi did. It was a small utilitarian room, partly whitewashed and partly tiled, with a big metal wood-fired water boiler, and a metal basin for the mashing.

Olavi adding hot water to the mash.

It turns out they started brewing long before we came. At six o'clock that morning they added lukewarm water to the malt, but only a little. Then at seven thirty they added warmer water again. When we showed up at 9 they were ready to add water again, this time so hot it steamed. Olavi got two buckets of hot water from the water boiler and poured into the mash while one of us (Timo Alanen) stirred. This slow step mashing with many steps is very typical of sahti brewing, and Olavi was far from done yet.

Now there was about an hour's break while we looked around and talked to Tuula, who spoke English, and through her with Olavi, who did not. They brought out glasses and a plastic canister of sahti, serving us first Olavi's sahti, then Tuula's.

Olavi's sahti was just as good as when I had it in Karvia: sweet but not too sweet, malty, slightly warming, faintly spicy from the rye, and dangerously smooth and drinkable. Tuula's was obviously drier, but also excellent.

The mash covered up

1030 it was time to add more water, now slightly hotter than last time. Then at 1200 they added boiling water, taking the mash all the way to 58C. Then the mash was left alone for an hour. So at 1300 they had been brewing for seven hours, but had still not gotten up to what we would consider proper mash temperatures. This, however, is completely normal for sahti brewers.

In fact, there's a Finnish saying that a good brewer should be lazy. I suspect it refers to this, that the brewer should take his time when mashing and not rush it.

Then it was time for lunch. We crammed ourselves around the small table in their kitchen, tucking into something very like a standard Norwegian at-home lunch: slices of bread, boiled eggs, yellow cheese, cut tomatoes and cucumber, ham, milk, and so on. I was faintly puzzled to note that although there was one free chair, neither Olavi nor Anneli sat by the table, but instead off to the side. Anneli didn't even sit on a chair, but some small portable steps. But they didn't speak English, so it kind of made sense.

Tuula's "cottage"

After lunch we headed off to see Tuula's "cottage" nearby. This turned out to be a small farm that used to belong to an old, lonely couple. When Tuula lived here she used to visit them once a week or so on her way home from school. Later, when she'd gone to university and moved away, she was surprised to hear that the old lady had died, and left the farm to her. So now they keep it as a kind of summer house.

Now came something I had been looking forward to with excitement: Olavi was going to boil the mash. I'd heard beforehand that many sahti brewers did this, and it was one of the things I'd most been looking forward to seeing on this trip.

In older sources I had read many, many descriptions of brewers boiling the mash, something modern brewers believe is a very bad idea. It's supposed to give a lot of astringency, and also to make the mash hard to lauter. In quite a few old accounts from people who heated the mash in the kettle without boiling they said the same thing: boiling the mash would turn it into porridge and make it impossible to lauter. Confusingly, the people who did boil the mash never made any reference to any kind of problem with the practice.

Olavi stirring the mash in the kettle

I'd come to the conclusion that it had to be possible to boil the mash without getting into trouble, but that perhaps it would only work either with certain ingredients or if you went about it some special way. I was hoping that seeing a brewer actually do it and tasting his beer could help me finally unravel this mystery. At this point I'd tasted Olavi's sahti without picking up anything unusual, which made me even more curious.

The mash was transferred to the kettle with a steel bucket, and the fire started underneath. The mash was stirred constantly to avoid it being burnt (just as Sverre Skrindo did). Olavi watched the mash carefully to judge the temperature. It started out quite pale, then after about 10 minutes it was visibly darker. Olavi kept stirring, and gradually the mash was covered in pale foam. Eventually mash started rising up to the surface along the sides of the kettle in little bursts.

This was what Olavi had been waiting for. "Now it's at 80 degrees," he said. Mika brought out his thermometer to check and stuck it in the middle. 79.9C. Not a bad estimate, in other words. And that was it, now the mash was to be scooped out of the kettle and into the lautering tun.

Mash burst shooting up through the foam

So what about the boiling? I asked Mika and he explained that Olavi called this boiling, which is why we had been thinking that he would boil the mash. And it had looked rather like boiling, except the temperature stopped at about 80C.

Well, that explained why I hadn't tasted any particular boiled mash flavour in the beer, but it was still confusing. Was it like this with the older sources, too, that they had seen the mash move like this and called it boiling, without knowing (or perhaps even caring?) that the temperature was nowhere near 100C? If so, that would explain why they could "boil" the mash with no ill effects, since they didn't actually boil it. So maybe the textbooks were right, and there actually were no boiled mash beers? But there was little time to think about that, since the brewing continued.

Olavi's lauter tun was not actually a tun, but a steel trough mounted on steel legs. In Finnish these are called "kuurna", and are a very characteristic part of sahti brewing. Traditionally they were made from hollowed-out wooden logs (just like we saw in Kudymkar, Russia), but Olavi had bought a modern one. Although the producer was using steel and could make the lauter tun in any shape they wanted, they still stuck to the traditional shape. (Exactly like Sverre Skrindo, in fact.)

The kuurna traditionally had juniper as the filter in the bottom, but Olavi used just a steel wire mesh. Olavi has tried using juniper, but he said it adds a sharpness that he doesn't like, and that his beer is better without it.

Harri (Tuula's husband) adding mash to the kuurna

Before even all the mash was in the kuurna Olavi opened the tap and started lautering. Then the last of the mash was ladled on. The first 8 liters of wort coming out was put in a large milk can, placed in a bucket of cold water until it cooled to 28C, then three cubes of bread yeast from the shop were crumbled into it. This was the yeast starter.

Tuula explained that it was important to get the starter going as soon as possible so that fermentation could begin right away, before any possible infection had time to take hold.

Then the rest of the mash was lautered, adding some water to the pretty dry mash. Each can was cooled to 22C, then poured into the fermentor. Once all the wort was in, the starter was added. Lautering had taken about two hours, and the starter was already showing signs of life.

Olavi cleaning the hops

Once everything was in the fermentor, Olavi was ready to add the hops. He took a small saucepan full of hot water, adding one handful of hops to it. Tuula interjected that "I use two handfuls, since my hands are smaller." Then Olavi used the lid as a filter and poured all the water out. So he was basically just scalding the hops in water to sanitize them. Then the hops were dropped into the fermentor, effectively dry-hopping his sahti. This handful of hops was the only spice of any kind added at any point.

The fermentor had no lid, but was covered with a white blanket, which Tuula said was called "kaljasaavinpeitto." Literally "beer cover" or "beer blanket." She chuckled and added that "if a woman's shirt is really ugly you can say it looks like a kaljasaavinpeitto." Sadly, throughout the rest of the trip I never had occasion to make use of the word.

Now the sahti was going to ferment at room temperature in the "cow kitchen" for 2-3 days. To see if the sahti is finished Olavi takes the ladle and makes a furrow in the foam on top. If the foam doesn't close again, it means the sahti is done. But it's not drunk at that point. Instead it's moved to a cold room at 4C and kept there for a while.

Initially, when Mika asked how long the sahti should be stored Olavi just shrugged and said "well, you taste it, and then you will know." Which of course is the right answer, because it's not the same each time. When pressed, Olavi said he thinks the sahti is usually best at 2.5-3 weeks from the brewday. It will keep fine up to two months.

Left to right: Martin Thibault, Mika Laitinen, Amund Polden Arnesen, Timo Alanen, Olavi Viheroja, Harri Salonen, Tuula Viheroja, Anneli Viheroja, me. Photo kindly taken by Ilkka Miettinen.

And then it was time to leave, but first we took the time to pose for a group photo. Although I didn't much want to go. We'd been there only about eight hours, but already I felt close to these warm, open people, so friendly, caring, and straightforward. Bending down to pick up my bag I was surprised to feel my eyes filling with tears.

As we headed for the car Martin looked at me and said "you've got something in your eye."
"Yeah," I said thickly.
"Me too," Martin said.

Quite often on these trips, I feel like I'm the luckiest person alive.

Martin enjoying the sahti


This was in Hämeenkyrö in southwestern Finland, about 35 kilometers northwest of the town of Tampere. Olavi originally comes from Jämijärvi, maybe 40 kilometers further northwest, and he says his recipe is a mix of Hämeenkyrö and Jämijärvi sahti.

Olavi brews 80-90 liters from:

Tuula and Olavi waiting for the wort to cool

Mash schedule:

One handful of hops is scalded in hot water, then added to fermentor.

Starter is set at 28C, but the rest of the wort is cooled to 22C. Ferments in a steel basin at room temperature 2-3 days, then stored at 4C for 2-3 weeks.

I measured mash pH to 5.8 after the water was added at 1200.

On the brewday we measured OG to 1092, while the finished beer we tasted had an FG of 1034, which means 7.7% ABV.

The word for "cow kitchen" is karjakeittiö.

Harri showing us an old kuurna


Warm thanks to Timo Alanen for arranging the brewday (he went to school with Tuula). Thanks to Timo and Ilkka Miettinen for driving, and Mika for translation and sharing his notes.

Sahti in the traditional container

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Johann Renner - 2021-05-23 16:32:56

Hi Lars, really interesting as usual! Do you think the bread yeast used in Sahti is really special? I mean, I don't think it could be easily replaced.

As a side question, you mentioned apple trees: Is cider making a thing among Sahti brewers?


Lars Marius Garshol - 2021-05-23 20:16:19

@Johan: Thank you. Yes, I think the Suomen hiiva yeast is quite unique. You can produce somewhat similar flavours with hefeweizen yeast, but it won't be the same. I agree it's difficult to find a replacement for it.

I haven't heard about cidermaking among the sahti brewers. Cider is generally not a traditional drink in the Nordic countries.

Nick - 2021-05-24 02:55:48

Lars: Thank you for introducing Olavi. Do you have any details on the basic Cow Kitchen tools, especially the wood fired water boiler and the wood fired mash kettle? Are these items "antique relics", are they purpose built on the old dairies, or are they being manufactured and sold today? The scale and the use of wood for fuel is very interesting. All the Best!

Lars Marius Garshol - 2021-05-24 09:57:19

@Nick: There was only one kettle in there, and it's the one you see in the photos where the mash is being heated. Volume must be about 110-120 liters. It's definitely not an old heirloom. Every farm seemed to have a very similar setup, but as far as I recall the kettles were of different makes in different places. I do think you can reconstruct the dimensions fairly easily from the photos and knowing the volumes.

I don't know if they're still being sold. They might be.

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