Viking Age Brew and Baltic Farmhouse Brewing
Photo courtesy Sami Brodkin.
In many ways Mika Laitinen has done things a little differently for a long time. Rather than starting out brewing with a more experienced friend, as many brewers do, he started his homebrewing journey by checking out a book from the library in the late 90s.
Homebrewing was not a common hobby at the time in Finland. The only homebrewing club in Finland at the time was in Helsinki, about 300km from his home. Mika was able to contact members of the club through the internet, but was never able to brew with them in person. He later joined a local beer club, though none of the club members actually brewed beer themselves.
Not only is Viking Age Brew: The Craft of Brewing Sahti Farmhouse Ale his first book written in English, it is Mika’s first solo book. When it came time to release the book, Mika managed to strike a publishing deal in the United States from Finland. Without the help of an agent.
Image courtesy Sami Perttilä
Not satisfied with the information he had on hand, and looking to improve his brewing, Mika started asking questions of both farmers and brewers. The two are not always separate in Finland. It helps that Mika has a natural curiosity, and an easy demeanor making even a first conversation seem like it’s taking place between friends.
His first book was co-authored by Johannes Silvennoinen and Hannu Nikulainen, and released in 2015. The trio researched the brewing traditions, culture and history of Sahti.
His second, written with journalist Maria Markus and released the following year, was an update on the broader subject of homebrewing for fellow Finns.
Right now, there are no plans to translate either of the earlier works, intended to update local brewing resources, into other languages.
Transition to English
Mika started writing in English a few years ago at his blog, www.BrewingNordic.com, hoping to introduce the global craft beer scene to Finnish brewing traditions that had been otherwise overlooked. The recent rise in popularity of Viking culture in Western media has helped, as has the recent frenzy over the yeast cultures.
Viking Age Brew continues and expands on the research done for the 2015 project. The book is a deep dive into the techniques, context and ingredients that make up traditional brewing in Finland- not just Sahti.
The book will walk you through unusual styles not found in your BJCP Style Guide like Taari, where part of the mashing process involves baking the mash (Laitinen, Viking Age Brew: The Craft of Brewing Sahti Farmhouse Ale, 2019).
This past July Mika did a short book tour through Oregon and Washington. He had several American homebrewers bring him their versions of Sahti to try. While none tasted like the Sahti brewed close to his home, most were good interpretations of the style using ingredients available in the U.S.
Mika has a largely open mind about what Sahti can be. While none of the brews he encountered on his New World trip tasted like the Sahti back home, he does think that some were good interpretations using the ingredients that would be available to brewers in the United States and Canada. Not only will the barley varieties likely be different, but the species and sex of the juniper tree branches used in the brewing process will significantly impact flavor.
Sahti as Part of the Farmhouse Brewing Tradition
While now confined to only a few areas, farmhouse brewing was once a widespread tradition around the Baltic Sea. To see where the areas that traditional brewing survive, see the map here: https://www.brewingnordic.com/farmhouse-ales/ancient-homebrew-sahti/
There is an area of Norway where “teams” will get together and build a malting lodge. The teams will work together to the grains, kilning them in over woodfires in the lodges. They will then brew beer from their grains and share it with their families during the holidays. See Mika’s post on the beers and brewers of Stjørdal (Laitinen, Traditional Farmhouse Malting in Stjordal, 2019).
Traditional Finnish malts are not as smoky as their Swedish counterparts. The farmhouse tradition that survives in Finland is Sahti brewing, and has become the regional specialty of an area about 100-350 kilometers from Helsinki and about half an hour from Mika’s home.
Sahti is not a popular commercial product- the changes necessary to make it shelf stable as a packaged product are at odds with the traditionally fresh consumption. Not only does serving Sahti fresh keep the brew from turning to vinegar, it also has the benefit of creating a communal experience.
Since Finland has a high alcohol tax, there are some unofficial Sahti brewers supplementing their income by selling without a license. He estimates that there are somewhere between many working in 100 to 200-liter (26-53 gallon) batches along with six commercial Sahti brewers.
Mika first brewed Sahti for his own consumption around 15 years ago. At first, he included hops in his recipe, but kept reducing the amount in successive batches over time to try and reduce a “sharp” bitter taste pointed out by traditional brewers. He eventually left hops out of his Sahti brewing altogether, and now favors a more traditional recipe.
The traditional method of passing Sahti recipes down is to pass them from person to person during brewing sessions. Many family recipes have survived this way, though the recipes are not usually closely guarded secrets. Anyone showing up often enough could pick up the process and recipe through careful observation, and if lucky enough, participation.
Mika’s books then, offer a rare view into the process for anyone curious but not able to visit the Sahti lodges in person.
Image courtesy Mika Laitinen
Hops in Finland
The Swedes likely introduced hops to Finland , both as a crop and as a brewing ingredient. Starting in the mid-1100’s Swedish soldiers crossed the border in an attempt to conquer the native Fins and spread Christendom across their borders (Wikimedia Commons, 2019) as part of the Northern Crusades. By the early 1300s, the Swedes had deposed the Finnish chieftans and had established their rule over the area, bringing both hops as crop plants and the practice of using hops in the brewing of beer.
Mika found references in local history books during his research that hops were sent as tax payments to the Swedish King. Those references make up the earliest mentions that he can find of hops in Finland. Every farm was required to grow some hops to pay the tax, and not surprisingly, many of those hops were neglected when Swedish rule was overturned. Some of the hops eventually went wild, and still grow uncultivated today.
In addition to a few hobby farms still producing, there are also some small scale commercial and homegrown hops in Finland. The hops grown so far are similar to German Spalt or Tettnanger.
Lager came to Finland, as with other Nordic countries during the 19th Century, and are not particularly hoppy. Finnish brewers, however, are now watching the US, and taking cues on new styles. IPAs and hoppy Pilsners have both gained in popularity recently.
There has also been significant influence from other Nordic countries. However, it is somewhat surprising given the geographic proximity, post WWII. There was some influence before the war, but most of those traditions did not survive the Iron Curtain.
Even with the expanded influence on beer styles, Mika doesn’t see Sahti dying out or becoming something restricted to older generations. The place, the culture and the people that make up the Sahti experience are ingredients like malted grains, water and yeast are. The communal experience helps pass the appreciation as well as the lore from generation to generation.
Looking for a last-minute present? Get the book on Amazon.
Disclosures: This is not an affiliate link, and I did not receive a copy of the book for writing this article.
Book cover photo courtesy Sami Brodkin.
Laitinen, M. (2019, 11 15). Traditional Farmhouse Malting in Stjordal. Retrieved from Brewing Nordic: https://www.brewingnordic.com/farmhouse-ales/farmhouse-malting-stjordal
Laitinen, M. (2019). Viking Age Brew: The Craft of Brewing Sahti Farmhouse Ale. Chicago: Chicago Review Press.
Wikimedia Commons. 2019, 11 19). Finland Under Swedish Rule. Retrieved from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Finland_under_Swedish_rule
Wikimedia Commons. (2019, 11 19). Northern Crusades. Retrieved from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Northern_Crusades