Sahti – Scandinavian Juniper Ale

Evergreen ale may have been a staple in Scandinavia dating to ancient times. There is a reference to the use of the new shoots from the ends of evergreen branches in the production of wedding beer in the ancient saga Kalevala, book XX.[1] The folklore contained therein is referenced by Tacitus in the second century, although a collective account of the poem translated into English is only available to us from the 19th century.[2] Juniper is reputed to have some antiseptic qualities[3], and in fact the juniper berries are used to produce gin – a restorative tonic dating to the early 16th century.

Juniper ale and beer is the traditional brew of the Scandinavian countries: Norway, Finland and Sweden. There are seven methods used in these countries for brewing juniper ale: boiled mash and wort, boiled mash and wort with repeated pourings, the wort boiled but not the mash, mash and some of wort boiled, mash boiled but not the wort, some wort boiled but not the mash, and neither mash nor wort boiled (this is known as raw ale).[4]

Scandinavian beer culture have been traced back at least to the Viking Age (9th – 11th centuries). For example, Asplund (p. 25) notes that sahti barrels were found in the 1930s on a sunken Viking wreck off Norway. The design of the barrels was dated to the 9th century, when sahti may have been popularised in Finland and, to an extent, in parts of Sweden and Norway.[5]

The traditional Scandinavian brew called sahti dates at least to the 8th century[6], and uses juniper in two forms.[7] The wort is cooked with juniper berries or sections of juniper twigs. The wort is then filtered through a mesh made up of juniper twigs. The beer thus enjoys both the cooked and the uncooked adjuncts of juniper to affect the finished flavor.

Juniper is usually the star of the show in sahti, but it served as more than just an ingredient. First, a bundle of juniper branches … were thrown into the strike water and brought to a boil. This not only added flavor to the hot liquor, but the juniper-infused liquid was used as a sanitizer in which all the equipment was dipped. Juniper branches, along with a layer of straw, were also traditionally placed at the bottom of a a trough-like vessel called a kuurna. The wort was sent through the kuurna as a means of filtration, but also allowed the liquid to pick up some more of the juniper … character. This can be mimicked by the modern homebrewer by layering juniper branches over your mash tun’s filter device.[8]

While modern sahti is usually hopped, this was not the traditional practice. Juniper has both a bittering component, and a preservative quality to it.

Juniper is the most important brewing herb in the Nordic and Baltic farmhouse ales. Traditionally the juniper flavor comes from the branches laid on the bottom of the lauter tun filter or from juniper infusion (branches infused in hot water).  The taste of branches is needle-like and woody, somewhat different than flavor of berries. Hops are used fairly often, but usually in minor quantities. Sahti is often unhopped.[9]

 

Footnotes

[1] Crawford, pg. 306.

[2] Crawford, pg. vii.

[3] Oliver, pg. 431.

[4] Bessette

[5] Ovell, pg. 4. Note that Asplund’s reference is actually to the Oseberg ship find, which was a ship discovered in a burial mound rather than a ship sunk off the coast as Ovell implies.

[6] Cullen

[7] Mosher, pp. 244-5.

[8] Bryant

[9] Laitinen

References

Bessette, Alex (1 April 2012). “Juniper”. Gruit Ale & Unhopped Beers. Retrieved 15 July 2016, from http://www.gruitale.com/bot_juniper.htm.

Bryant, Duncan. (2017). “Sahti: One of the World’s Oldest Beer Styles”. Zymurgy. Retrieved 6 September 2017, from https://www.homebrewersassociation.org/how-to-brew/sahti-one-of-the-worlds-oldest-beer-styles/.

Crawford, John Martin. (1888). The Kalevala: The Epic Poem of Finland into English. Cincinnati: The Robert Clarke Company.

Cullen, Kevin (9 March 2010). “Brewing a Viking Era Ale”. The Distant Mirror. Retrieved 15 July 2016, from https://distantmirror.wordpress.com/2010/03/09/brewing-a-viking-era-ale/.

Laitinen, Mika. (January 2017). “Sahti and Related Ancient Farmhouse Ales”. Brewing Nordic. Retrieved 7 September 2017, from http://www.brewingnordic.com/farmhouse-ales/ancient-homebrew-sahti/.

Mosher, Randy (2004). Radical Brewing. Boulder: Brewers Publications.

Oliver, Garrett (2011). The Oxford Companion to Beer. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ovell, Peter. (1996). “Finland’s Indigenous Beer Culture”. Cervisia Fennica, Special Publications 1. Helsinki: Finnish Society for Traditional Beers.

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Author: madocarundel

Madoc is a 13th century squire from the area around Gloucester, England. His father was English and his mother Welsh. Since retiring from active service in the army of King John, he has taken up brewing as a pass-time.

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