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Sahti: from Finland with funk

by: BeerAdvocate on 02-23-2005
Is globalization always a positive thing? Open up just about anyone’s refrigerator these days, and you’ll find different flavors from all over the world—and some local ones if you’re lucky. We have to wonder what the cost of over-globalization of products will be. As spoiled Americans, we create a demand for certain products, pulling foreign borders ever-closer to our lazy asses. Apply this ethos to beer, and it takes away the exotic mystique of journeying to a foreign country to taste a beer directly from its source.

We recently opened our fridge and found … a Finnish Sahti? The excitement of something new quickly replaced our concerns of over-globalization.

What the hell is Sahti?
Said to be one of the only primitive beers to survive in Western Europe, Sahti is a farmhouse ale with roots in Finland. First brewed by peasants in the 1500s, mashing (steeping of grains) went down in wooden barrels, and then that mash would be scooped into a hand-carved wooden trough (a kuurna) with a bed of juniper twigs that acted as a filter. The bung at the bottom of the kuurna would be pulled to allow the sweet wort (liquid infusion from the mash) to pass through the twig filter, followed by wort recirculation and a hot water sparge (rinsing of the grains), all of which created a juniper infusion of sorts.
Lammin Sahtia (right) and Kataja Olut (left) from the Lammin Sahti Oy brewery in Finland
Sahti is also referred to as being turbid, because the wort isn’t boiled after lautering (separation of spent grain and liquid), leaving loads of proteins behind, thus providing tremendous body. A low-flocculating Finnish baker’s yeast creates a cloudy unfiltered beer, with an abundance of sediment. Traditional Sahti is not typically hopped, so the task of balancing is left up to the juniper twigs, which impart an unusual resiny character and also act as a preservative. Some have compared Sahtis to German Hefeweizens, though we find them to be more akin to the Lambics of Belgium due to the exposure to wild yeast and bacteria, and its signature tartness. Alcohol by volume (abv) is generally over 7 percent.

Although the style is very rare these days, Sahti masters and Finns at home still make this interesting and complex brew, both traditionally and with modern twists. B. United International, a specialty beer importer in Connecticut, brings in some of the only Finnish Sahti available in the US from the Lammin Sahti Oy brewery. The first is Lammin Sahtia, a traditional Sahti, and Lammin Kataja Olut, which is boiled and uses a regular ale yeast and hops to increase shelf life to 12 months. B. United imports only 60 cases of the Lammin Sahtia at a time, because it’s a very delicate beer with a short shelf life due to its brewing process. They’ve even gone as far as insisting on a guarantee from the wholesalers and retailers to ensure cold storage until consumption.

A Taste of Lammin Sahtia
Lammin Sahtia pours a very hazy, dirty peach color with tons of remaining sediment in the bottle. The head is vigorous but quickly snaps down to a thin, wispy lace. There isn’t much head retention, but you can see the tight bubbles surface. Aroma is uniquely pungent, with plenty of pine tones, hints of menthol, herbs and a vaguely medicinal undercurrent. Oddly, there are also bizarre tones of cooked greens, freshly cut grass, animal feed, fruit zest and generic bullion cube (no, really!). Lingering fruit characters bring to mind the essence of tart orange juice, with dominant berry tones and skin-like tannins. The 7.7 percent abv is hardly noticeable.

Lammin Sahtia is available in 11.2 oz bottles at around $5 each. Visit www.sahti.com or www.bunitedint.com for more information.

Enjoying Sahti
Approach Sahti with an open mind and an open palate, or you’ll risk immediate disappointment and total misunderstanding. Store refrigerated until consumed to ensure freshness, and then serve in a slender glass at around 45°. Sahti is best on its own, so you can appreciate all of its glorious funkiness.

Respect beer.
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