Sahti - rural beer with a great Finnish
It's very drinkable, indeed, at the only pub in the world it's offered on draught
At the Sahti competition reported in this article, Michael Jackson was named the years "Holder of the Haarikka", for his writings on Finland's traditional beer. These include articles in "What's Brewing" (October 1995 and November 1994), "The Independent", and books as far back as the 1977 "World Guide to Beer".
It is off the beaten track, I admit, and effectively a tied house, but I just had to see it: the only pub in the world dedicated to sahti, the strong, unfiltered, country beer of Finland.
Sahti is one the oldest styles of beer. It is often made with a proportion of rye, usually employs juniper in addition to hops, and is fermented with bakers' yeast. It is typically home-brewed, sometimes in the sauna, where it is also consumed, I have enjoyed commercially-brewed sahti from "milk" cartons in a couple of bars in Helsinki, but in neither was this rare brew the establishment's raison d'etre.
From Helsinki, I headed 60 or 70 miles north to Hämeenlinna a regional capital with a 12th-century castle. I paused in that town for a glass of a more conventional beer, a malty lager called Frendi, at William's, one of the oldest English-style pubs in Finland. How ancient? About twenty-five years. Finland does not have an elaborate pub culture, but its traditional beer is another story.
I forked east and travelled 15 miles north-east on route 10 to its intersection with route 12. I then turned right on to route 12, in the direction of Lahti.
The sahti pub is less than half a mile, on this main road. The pub's name, boldly displayed, is Sahtihaarika, the second half referring to the two-handled, wooden (juniper) vessel from which the beer is traditionally served. Another sign, almost as bold, says Sahtiravintola, announcing that this is, indeed, a restaurant where the drink can be enjoyed.
It is a single-story structure, of brick and wood, painted in red oxide. Part of the building accommodates a hairdresser, and another section was a small garage. That part is now the pub's with half a dozen tables on a terrace.
In summer, it is warm enough to sit outside. Inside, the pub has a further half dozen tables, of unvarnished wood, and a bar made torn pine floorboards rescued from a warehouse that stored salted meat.
A sledge is a central feature of the rudimentary decor, along with several vessels used in the making, storage and consumption of sahti.
The flavour is sweetish, with some mint-toffee and banana notes, balanced by a clean, perfumy juniper dry ness. I found it soft, and very drinkable indeed.
This is the only place in Finland, and therefore the world, where sabti is served on draught. Better still, it is served on British handpumps. It emerges with not much head, like a traditional Southern English bitter, and has an amberred colour. The flavour is sweetish, with some mint-toffee and banana notes, balanced by a clean, perfumy juniper dry ness. I found it soft, and very drinkable indeed.
Several other drinkers seemed to be enjoying the brew, which even in Finland is a regional speciality (less widely consumed, for example, than scrumpy in the west of England).
One tottered to his feet and announced that he wished to sing a tribute tome for my efforts in celebrating traditional beers. He stood bolt upright, slightly too close, fixed me with a stare, and began a wailing, emphatic chant. I did not recognise the language.
"Was that Finnish or Lapp?" I inquired afterwards. It sounded more like some African tongue, or perhap Maori. "It was no language," he responded, opaquely, ordering another sahti. My taste for the rye had been aroused, and now I was hungry. I ordered a sandwich of rye bread with a mature local cheese, In the style of Emmental, and washed it down with an other pint.
I wondered about taking some beer with me, but the law does not permit that (sahti has about 8.0 per cent alcohol by volume, and takeaway beers cannot exceed 4.7).
The plastic jugs I had seen contained sahti wort for home-brewers.
There were others before Finland imposed Prohibition, between 1917-19 and 1932.
The Sahtihaarikka is an enterprise of Pekka Käariänen and his wife Sirpa. They own the Lammin Sahti brewery, founded in 1987 as the first commercial producer in decades. There were others before Finland imposed Prohibition, between 1917-19 and 1932.
There are now seven micro-breweries producing only sahti and a couple more making wort. The two traditional regions of production are both north of Helsinki, but one slightly to the east the other to the west.
The easterly region spreads from Hiffimenlinna to Lahti and north toward Jyviiskylii. The westerly one extends beyond Tampere toward Parkano.
Most of the commercial examples of sahti are named after the communities where they are made. With the help of enthusiast Esa Karell, a micro-systems engineer, I have managed to sample quite a range: Honkajoki (muddy brown, syrupy, clovey, medicinal); Joutsa (orange in colour, with peach-nectar notes and lemony tartness); Koivula (dark brown, with notes of figs and garden mint); the flip-pantly-named Mafia, from Ilvesjoki (the colour of grapefruit juice, with an acidic flavour and touches of bitter chocolate), and Finlandia, from Forssa (muddy, syrupy, with a good juniper character).
I met Mr Karell during August's annual championships for home-brewers of sahti. This event is organised by the Sahti Society. Each community first has a judging to choose its own best sahti, then the winners go forward to a final which is held in a different town each year.
The 1995 final was held in a lakeside hotel in the papermill town of Valkeakoski, which is close to the meeting point of the two regions. Two or three hundred people attended.
More than 100 brews had been fined down to about 30, and there were two dozen local experts as judges, four of them women.
Being something of an outsider, I was honoured to be invited on the panel, along with Helsinki journalist Mikko Montonen.
The local judges were seated at tables set out in a U-shape. Mikko and I were placed in an exposed position in the middle.
Most of the brews were nutty, with some alcohol flavours. One was especially fruity, another overwhelmingly sweet, a third powerfully smoky.
No one conferred - I was on my own. How would judgment fare? Most of the brews were nutty, with some alcohol flavours. One was especially fruity, another overwhelmingly sweet, a third powerfully smoky.
My favourite was complex, dry and refreshing. I was most gratified when this turned out to be the panel's first choice.
The winner was retired railwayman Tauno Sirén, aged 69, from lkaalinen, north-west of Tampere. He told me that he brews once a month, usually for family celebrations or those of friends.
The winning brew had been made for a birthday party. He had used rye, but no juniper, which came as a disappointment to me. He told me that the acidity of juniper upset his stomach. Had he, then, used hops? Yes - hops grown in his own garden. That helped me overcome my upset about the juniper.
I hope that drinking from juniper does not distress him. His prize was a juniper Haarikka. And they gave him a flat cap - made from birch.
Published Online: MAY 18, 2000
Published in Print: JAN 1, 1996
In: What's Brewing
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