Lammin Sahti

<< 2021-11-15 14:24 >>

Lammin Sahti van, outside the brewery.

The day after we visited Finlandia Sahti the time had come for Lammin Sahti, the other major commercial producer of Finnish sahti. The name really means "sahti of Lammi", or "Lammi's sahti", and the brewery is on a small farm in the county of Lammi, about 100 kilometers north of Helsinki. (This was part of the Finnish sahti expedition of 2018.)

We poked around a bit before we found the right house, but suddenly we were obviously in the right place, because we were met by a man in a bright yellow shirt with the Lammin logo. Apart from the shirt and the tan shorts he looked exactly like some of the Nokia executives I met back in my days as an IT consultant. He turned out to be Pekka Kääriäinen, the founder of the brewery, and, as I was about to learn, a central person in the recent history of sahti.

Entering the brewery, the first thing I noticed was a huge metal cylinder on its side, standing on metal feet with its lid open. To anyone who knows anything about sahti brewing it was obvious what it was: the traditional sahti lauter tun, the kuurna. But this one was made of steel, and much bigger than the traditional ones, because this was a commercial brewery.

Pekka next to the kuurna.

The setup was simple and straightforward: water heater, kuurna, fermentor. That's it. No copper for boiling the wort, because this was a sahti brewery and sahti brewers don't boil the wort.

It wasn't a very big brewery, though. Pekka said the batch size is 1300 liters, and they make about 25,000 liters a year.

I was kind of sad to hear that, because Lammin is a very good brewery, and also together with Finlandia a unique one. There simply aren't that many brewers of real sahti in this world. And put together these two produce only 45,000 liters a year.

I asked Pekka how he started and he told me he started brewing in 1970, when he was 14. He picked up brewing from a friend, simply because he thought it was interesting, he said. "But my mother didn't like it. She said: 'In this house no sahti will be made.'"

"So what did you do," we asked, inevitably.

Pekka looked at us in his usual expressionless, determined way, then shrugged. He just kept brewing and his mother simply had to accept it.

Later he decided he wanted to start selling wort, which both then and later has been a quite common business model. It has the huge advantage that there are no alcohol taxes and far less regulation involved. You simply sell customers a plastic canister of wort, and they buy the normal sahti yeast, Suomen Hiiva, in an ordinary store and add it to the canister. Pretty soon they have sahti.

"I was really surprised," he said, "to get a license to brew instead." At that time, in the mid-80s, he explained, there were only four breweries in Finland, all of them macro lager brewers. They made pale lager and porter, and nothing else. "Beer culture back then was pretty poor," said Pekka, and the start of Lammin Sahti created a big stir, since it was the first interesting thing to happen to the Finnish beer scene in two decades.

He still ferments his sahti with Suomen Hiiva, it turned out. That's a Finnish-produced baking yeast, and a quite unusual yeast. It's a fast fermenter with high temperature tolerance, and can produce quite a powerful banana aroma, as we saw at Finlandia Sahti. It's in many ways similar to the true farmhouse yeasts, but exactly where it comes from is unknown.

The yeast character of Lammin Sahti is much more restrained than that of Finlandia, but the banana notes are still there. "People sometimes ask me if I use bananas in the beer. I always say 'yes, of course!'" Pekka nodded gravely, then mimed dumping bunches of bananas in the kuurna. We all laughed, but Pekka was as deadpan as ever.

It turned out this was actually his third brewkit. The first one was wooden, because all sahti farmhouse equipment traditionally was in wood. The recipe, however, hasn't changed in 30 years, he said.

"People often ask me 'why don't you brew something new?' I tell them: 'Please do,'" he said, "'but don't call it sahti.'"

I asked him if he'd ever tried to make a different sahti. Pekka said it could of course be done. He could use smoked malts, for example, or he could include malted rye. All of these things are traditional, but he has no reason to brew like that. He knows how to make this sahti.

The implication was pretty clear: sahti is a traditional beer. You make it according to the tradition, and you don't mess with that. I guess if he didn't come from Lammi, but from some region where they still made smoked sahti in the 70s, then he would have brewed that.

Going over to the farmhouse

Finishing up in the brewery Pekka took us a short distance up the road to what used to be the main building on the farm, where the family used to live. Presumably the house where his mother said nobody would ever make sahti.

We sat down, and Pekka started serving us his sahti, which was a really impressive beer. Very soft and smooth, low carbonation, with an excellent balance between sweetness on one side and juniper bitterness and raw ale abrasiveness on the other. Tastes of raw ale, caramel, and mineral, with the banana fruitiness livening things up without getting too dominant. Very drinkable. In fact, so drinkable you have to be careful, or the 7.5% will knock you right out.

The contrast with the flavour of Finlandia Sahti was obvious, and so was the reason. In the brewery Pekka had told us that he pitches at 20C and uses cooling to avoid getting the temperature too high. He starts cooling at 25-26C and tries never to let the temperature go above 30. (That fermentation temperature should be higher than pitch may sound strange, but yeast produces heat when it ferments sugar, so in a strong beer that ferments fast temperature can increase quite a lot.)

Pekka uses juniper in the filter, which is where the juniper flavour comes from. He told us that he'd tried brewing with juniper in the US, and the first few times they'd gone out in the forest to harvest juniper, but it didn't work out. American juniper "has no flavour! It's like a pine," he said. Stupidly I didn't check what species he was talking about.

Later he'd taken to bringing chips of juniper wood when brewing in the US. He said this worked nearly as well, and that even though he wrapped the juniper in plastic, his entire luggage reeked of juniper when he arrived in the US.

Pekka with a juniper branch. His wife on the left.

Traditionally sahti from Lammi should have hops in it, and Pekka used to use it, but, he mimed some large handfuls, in 1300 liters "you get no aroma, no flavour, no bitterness ... nothing!" In other words, there was so little hops in the beer that he saw it as pointless and stopped using it.

Sahti hasn't always been very well understood by the brewing industry. Pekka told us that 20 years ago there was a conference for commercial brewers near Lammi, and he was invited. At one point a commercial brewer came up to him and told him that "We have been discussing sahti. And we've decided it's a beer."

Pekka didn't comment on this in any way, just moved on to the next thing, and his face remained as expressionless as ever, but you could tell he was still angered by that comment.

I asked him about the status of sahti, and he said production is declining, even though it keeps getting better known. Then he added: "and we don't have so many Finnish products." I saw what he meant: how many well-known Finnish culinary specialities are there, really? Which makes the whole thing a bit odd, really: sahti is an important beer, and a rare Finnish culinary treasure, but while its reputation is growing, production is declining. Why?

Pekka had exported his sahti to Berlin, and people there complained that the beer was flat and had a strange flavour. When he explained why the beer was the way it was, the reaction was "that's a good idea!"

Pekka at the table.

And that seems to be a recurring problem for farmhouse ale: it tastes so different from the beers people are used to that they simply don't get it. Many people have to have explained to them what it is that they're drinking before they appreciate it. And of course in most situations where people drink beer that's just not possible.

In Finland, Pekka says, many people know about sahti, but it tends to really divide people: they either hate or love it. Many people say sahti is "a good idea, but I don't drink it."

There has also been a cultural change: it used to be that at weddings you only served sahti, but now people have started offering a choice between wine and sahti.

The contrast with Norway is quite striking: most Norwegians aren't even aware that there is such a thing as Norwegian-style beer, and so you can't ask Norwegians if they like maltøl. They have no idea what you're talking about. Sahti brewers in Finland are far better organized than the Norwegian farmhouse brewers, they've been brewing commercially for much longer than us, and their products are far better known to the public.

What's disheartening is that despite all this sahti is still a fairly marginal kind of beer in Finland. It doesn't bode well for the future of farmhouse ale generally, but Pekka does add that in Finland there are young people brewing sahti, which is encouraging.

One challenge for him has been the Finnish government policies on brewing in general, which are quite restrictive, just as in Norway and Sweden. He's been involved in two more breweries in addition to Lammin Sahti, with varying success, but trouble with the government has been a recurring issue.

At one point he said "I am the only one paying his taxes," which puzzled me considerably. The day after I was wondering what on earth he meant by this, since of course most people pay their taxes. Later it became very clear indeed what he was talking about. (We'll return to this in a later post.)

It was only at this point that I learned that it was actually Pekka who started the sahti brewers association, and the national sahti brewing competition. That explained why he had been standing with the winners to be photographed after the competition a few days earlier.

Pekka was also involved in another early project to promote farmhouse ale: the international competition in "juniper beers." This was a farmhouse ale brewing competition between Finland, Estonia, and Sweden (basically Gotland). However, that competition ended after a few years because it was considered too difficult to judge. Not so surprising, since sahti and koduõlu are very different beers from the smoky Swedish gotlandsdricke.

What with the constant serving of more sahti, and some spirits as well, organized interviewing more or less died out by itself, and we were having something closer to a party.

Toward the end of the evening Pekka showed us an old family photo album. We were looking through old 1940s photos, Pekka saying "here is the whole family in front of the house," then "here we have the couple in front of the house -- this is July 1944." The husband was in uniform, so it looked as though he was about to head off to the army. Next page: "here's his death certificate, August 1944."

True to form, Pekka said nothing more, just clenched his jaw in the by-now familiar way.

This would have been toward the end of the so-called Continuation War, a part of World War II, when the Soviets were on the offensive, pushing the Finns back into Finland. The war ended in September 1944 with Finland ceding large parts of eastern Finland to the Soviet Union. They're still part of Russia, but Finland at least kept its independence, unlike its Baltic neighbours.

The party ran on until around midnight, at which point we trudged back along deserted country roads to the house we were renting.

Heading back.

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