Right before our temporary closure due to COVID-19, we at Stormcloud Brewing Company had just put on tap an incredibly unique beer called a Sahti. I would love to share with you what I learned about this style!
According to The Oxford Companion to Beer, the Sahti is “a farmhouse beer style indigenous to Finland” and “is one of the oldest beer types still brewed today.”¹ It is traditionally made with rye and juniper,² and often with baker’s yeast¹ instead of brewer’s yeast. According to the BJCP Style Guidelines, “the juniper acts a bit like hops in the balance and flavor.”² Sahti’s also often have a banana-clove character, but it is completely dependent on what yeast is used. Since the Sahti is a Farmhouse Ale, it can vary greatly by ingredients, taste, and location brewed – and is adjustable according to the brewer.¹
Sahti is considered an Historical Beer style, and for good reason – casks of Sahti were discovered on a sunken Viking ship dated back to the 9th century, and “some historians even claim ancient beer styles like Sahti were the motivation behind developed agriculture in Scandinavia.”³ According to beer historian Mika Laitinen, the fact that it has survived the arrival of distilled alcohol, the onset of the era of cheap industrial beer, and prohibition is thoroughly impressive. He believes that “without its rich and unique taste, the traditional would surely have been dead by now.”⁴
The word sahti come from the Swedish word saft, meaning “juice” or “sap.” One thing I found particularly entertaining was that the Finnish-speaking brewers would intentionally refer to farmhouse ale as “juice” to mislead and evade the Swedish-speaking taxmen.⁴
The photo below is a woman brewing Sahti in Karvia, Finland around 1930. Aside from a few details, it is a similar setup to what brewers would have used in the Iron Age.⁴ Prior to the existence of metal cauldrons, brewers used wooden vessels which could not be heated to a boil over a fire. Instead, many Sahtis were not boiled, and those that were used hot stones put directly into the liquid.⁴ Additionally, past and present Sahti masters do not use thermometers, but instead measure the temperature using their fingers and the tip of their elbow.¹
Sahti was traditionally served in a large wooden vessel called haarikka, which was intended to be shared.⁴ These were most often passed around and consumed in the sauna.¹ You can see photos of haarikkas below.
If you haven’t yet tried a Sahti, I hope this has inspired you to do so and take a sip of history! On that note, I’d like to leave you with an old Finnish saying:
“In drinking sati, the feet get drunk first, and then the head.”⁴
References for this blog post:
¹Oliver, Garrett, editor. The Oxford Companion to Beer. Oxford University Press, 2012, pp. 709-711.
²BJCP Beer Style Guidelines. 2015 ed., Beer Judge Certification Program, 2015, pp. 58.
³ Bryant, Duncan. “Sahti: One of the World’s Oldest Beer Styles.” American Homebrewers Association, edited by Dave Carpenter, http://www.homebrewersassociation.org/how-to-brew/sahti-one-of-the-worlds-oldest-beer-styles/.
⁴Laitinen, Mika. Viking Age Brew. Chicago Review Press Incorporated, 2019, pp. 6-63.
All photos came from Mika Laitinen’s Viking Age Brew. A great read if you’re interested in learning more about the Sahti beer style.