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Finns get all steamed up over sahti

All I wanted to discuss was beer, but they kept bringing the conversation back to saunas. Sometimes it seems that the Finns think of nothing else.

The pine cabin where we had gathered was a "kitchen" for the preparation of cattle-feed from roots or grains - often rye -but it could also be used as a malting floor and kiln; a brewery; a place to bake bread, or smoke meat ... and it could be a sauna.

The source of energy for all these activities was a cast-iron stove and water-heater fired with birch logs. When I was there 25 litres of water, 20 kilos of barley malt and a further; two of rye were being heated on the small stove.

As the water turned to steam, more was added, about five litres at a time. As fast as the resultant mash thickened, the additions of water thinned it.

This process continued for four hours. The slow, tiring procedure would have made perfect sense to even the most technically-minded modem brewer.

The beer being made was sahti, the home-brew of rural Finland. The people of Finland trace their ethnic origins back to Central Europe, and they may have brought their brewing skills with them.

In some parts of Finland, sahti is known as soro. This looks suspiciously similar to the Hungarian word for beer, sor.

Was I watching a holistic method of brewing that linked back to the ancient techniques of Armenia and Mesopotamia? It is that possibility that has kept me on the track of sahti.

Was I watching a holistic method of brewing that linked back to the ancient techniques of Armenia and Mesopotamia? It is that possibility that has kept me on the track of sahti.

From Helsinki, I had travelled north east to the town of Lammi, a sahti production centre. About eight miles north of Lammi, I found Tapani Mattila and Veikko Rautavirta putting in their brew.

The cabin was on Tapani's farm, but in brewing he deferred to Veikko, a stocky man of 60.

Veikko's "day job" is to drive more than 100 miles, in the early hours of the morning, delivering newspapers. He is well aware of people's need for news.

"It's the same everywhere," he gestures. "Most people's hobby is knowing what their neighbours are doing. There are thousands of farmhouses brewing sahti, but as soon as you put in a mash everyone in the neighbourhood has 'inside information' that a new batch is on its way."

As Veikkos mash began to develop a reddish cast, and foam, he told me that it was nearly ready. We scraped a little up with our fingers - it tasted like sweet porridge.

He reckoned that it had an original gravity of about 20 degrees Plato (1048).

Veikko turned to a trough about two yards long, little more than a foot wide, and about the same deep. He put in rye straw and juniper twigs, complete with berries, until they were piled high, then ladled the mash on top.

He then poured on more water, which washed the mash through the filter formed by the straw and juniper. In the bottom of the trough a tap drained the liquid into a bucket.

A handful of hops was added to the bucket. The juniper provides an aromatic flavour, and acts as a preservative, in the sahti, so why the hops? "It's a tradition," proposed Veikko.

Some sahti brewers boil their wort - Veikko does not. The brew was decanted into a 50-litre milk churn, which it filled.

This was put into a milk-cooler. Given the losses through vaporisation during the mash, and the piecemeal addition of water, how had Veikko got exactly the right quantity? He seemed especially proud that nothing had been measured.

Bakers' yeast was added, and the brew would be left for two to three days to ferment. It would then be hand-bottled and held for 10 days in a cellar for secondary fermentation. It would emerge with between 7.0 and 9.0 per cent alcohol by volume.

When the day's batch was pitched, "one I made earlier" was fetched by another sahti-brewer, Pekka Kaariainn. But we were not ready to pursue any serious drinking.

We had to sauna first. This entailed finding one not being used for brewing.

That turned out to be at Pekka's home. Much was made of the fact that this was a "smoke sauna," the only true experience.

A sauna warmed by electricity is scarcely worthy of the name. In the real thing, a birch furnace heats a pile of stones, and preparation takes four hours.

By the time the occupants arrive, the fire has gone out, but the smoke and soot hang above the stones.

Once the occupants are seated in the sauna, water is poured over the stones, filling the atmosphere with surges of hot steam. The smoke is said to be good for the respiratory system, the sweating cleansing, and your neighbour's friendly assaults with leafy birch twigs refreshing.

Like everything else in Finland, most smoke saunas are by lakes. The idea is to run out of the sauna and into the lake.

When this has aroused the appetite sufficiently, there are eggs that have been hard-boiled to blackness in a rack in the hot, steamy, smoky sauna.

Only then, and after considerable showering to remove the patina of soot, is it permissible to quench oneself with sahti.

Sitting by the lake in the late evening, I thirstily downed the brew with my towel-clad companions, and asked about the mystique of sahti and sauna.

The sahti we were drinking had an orange-to-russet colour, and was cloudy. It had as much carbonation as a cask ale served by gravity from stillage. Its aroma and palate had notes of walnuts and bananas, developing to berry-fruits, juniper and smokiness. Its texture was smooth and slightly oily.

For all its assertive flavours and full body, it was perilously drinkable. Having slipped down coolly, it warmed the stomach with alcohol as night finally descended.

Veikko said he brewed for Christmas and Midsummer's Eve, the latter celebrated with bonfires.

"I also brew if I am going to be thirsty. That can be difficult, as I have to know two weeks ahead that a thirst is approaching." At such times, night and day assume a special relationship.

"At night, men drink sahti and talk a lot. In the morning, it is the women who have a lot to say.

Maybe the women should consume more sahti." It makes you happy, Veikko argued, while vodka - Finland's other tipple - can arouse anger.

The sauna, on the other hand, is a great leveller. "Behind your executive desk, or in your designer suit, you may be somebody special, a big man, explained one of the towel-clad drinkers.

"In the sauna, you are naked. You are just another guy." We drank a toast to that in sahti. Beer is an egalitarian beverage, but sahti is the most democratic of drinks.

Published Online: SEPT 2, 1998
Published in Print: OCT 1, 1994
In: What's Brewing

Brew Travel - Beer Styles

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