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The great Finnish sahti expedition

Posted in Beer on 2020-09-20 10:56

Lakeside sahti, near Isojoki

As farmhouse ale styles go sahti is quite well documented in print, but if you really want to understand a kind of beer there is no other way than to go there. You need to taste the beer, see it brewed, talk to the brewers, see the places, and get a sense for the whole community of brewers and drinkers. And since I'd never done that for sahti I knew that some day I would have to make a major trip to Finland. In 2017 Martin Thibault and I decided the time had come, and started preparing for a trip to Finland.

Planning actually began 11 months before the trip started, but it was only when Mika Laitinen agreed to travel with us that things really took off. Mika has written two books about sahti, one in Finnish and one in English, and is the leading expert on sahti. He already knew many of the brewers, and knew which ones were the best to visit, so having him on board made a huge difference for us.

Just as in Estonia, Amund Polden Arnesen came along, and Ilkka Miettinen (of UG Brewery) and Timo Alanen (eager Ratebeer user) volunteered to drive. That made for the biggest group I've ever travelled with on one of these things, but that actually turned out to be a real pleasure.

Places we visited on the trip.

We had quite an itinerary, stretching over nine days and covering most of the area where sahti brewing is still alive. We visited five commercial sahti brewers, participated in three brewdays, saw one commercial maltster, and met a whole host of sahti brewers. I took so many notes I literally used up the ink in the pens I'd brought for the trip, and in the end had to switch to a pen one sahti brewer gave me. Typing all this stuff up afterwards took forever.

Our first meeting of the trip was with Tuomas Pere, brewer at Pyynikin, a craft brewery in Tampere. Pyynikin is a craft brewery, but Tuomas grew up in the sahti country with brewers on both his father's and mother's sides, so he has one foot in either camp. He also brews both kind of beer, both ordinary craft beer and sahti.

He said selling the sahti was not so easy. "Many beer geeks still don't understand sahti at all," he said. So mostly they brew craft beer, but they do have three sahtis in their lineup. The main customers for those were fine dining restaurants, Tuomas said, because "they understand flavour." He didn't say it, but I got the impression he thinks beer people expect all beers to taste like modern beer, and have a hard time getting their heads around sahti, which is a very different kind of drink. Another reason the restaurants buy the sahti, he said, is that it pairs well with many different kinds of food.

Sahti served the traditional way, at Pyynikin in Tampere. (That's a plastic water bottle.)

Many of the farmhouse brewers are very dogmatic. They don't like the modern equipment that the beer is brewed in at Pyynikin, and they also don't like the way it's served. When Pyynikin released their sahti in glass bottles one farmhouse brewer actually called Tuomas to complain. The brewer was totally shocked: "why would you do such a thing?!?" Everyone knows sahti should be distributed in plastic cans or plastic bottles.

"I like it!" Tuomas exclaimed, laughing. That is, he likes it that people are passionate about what they do, and willing to speak their minds. His face turned serious again, and he said that personally he saw nothing wrong with glass bottles, even if it was a break with tradition. "If the tradition isn't changing, it will die," he said.

Since the two branches of his family came from different places and both brewed I got the details of both brews. They were similar, but different. They had their own yeast until it became possible to buy yeast, at which point they instantly switched to buying. He thinks that was in the 1950s or 60s. The pitch temperature was body temperature (this was the norm basically everywhere).

Eventually, we had to break off and go back to our hotel, because the next morning we had to leave early for the first stop on the tour. Nine days later we rolled into Helsinki, exhausted, happy, and our heads spinning with all the new information. The next blog posts will take us through the highlights of the tour.

Lakeside view outside one brewer's house in Hartola

Blog posts from the tour:

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Bram - 2020-09-20 21:11:53

Looking forward too reading about the rest of the trip.

PaulS - 2020-10-08 16:24:18

It seems odd to me that people expected sahti to be in plastic containers since 100 years ago, wooden; ceramic or recycled glass containers would have been used.

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