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The Goodland island and its ancient beers

Gotland has 60,000 people, 96 churches, and several hundred brewers

Being an island in the Baltic Sea, we have been ruled by the Russians - very briefly - the Germans and the Danes, and influenced by the Estonians. We have also been independent. We are now a part of Sweden. All the same, we refer to Sweden as 'the mainland'. When we travel there, we say: 'I am go to Sweden'."

A Gotlander was trying to explain his island. I always thought the people there were descendants of the Goths, but the island's name turns out to mean "Goodland". The populace are probably Germanic-Nordic stock, possibly most closely related to Icelanders.

On the island, carvings have been found in the runic script that was Europe's bridge between hieroglyphic and alphabet.

These have included precursors to the Lithuanian and Latvian word alus, the Estonian ölu and Finnish olut, the Swedish öl the Norwegian and Danish øl and the English ale.

While people, language and brewing may have spread from east to west, the Vikings took the opposite tack.

Legend has them stopping in Gotland to pick up beer on their way to Constantinople.

The indigenous beer is referred to simply as Gotlandsdricka, "the drink of Gotland". Like the Sahti of Finland, and farmhouse beers of Sweden and Western Norway, it is part of a distinct Baltic-Nordic brewing tradition.

In Norway, a similar building may serve as a brewery, bakery and smokery for meats.

In Finland, a farm might have a small, free-standing building, with its own wood fire, which doubles as a sauna, maltings and brewery. In Norway, a similar building may serve as a brewery, bakery and smokery for meats. In Gotland, it might have been used as a wash-house.

As I was driven round the island, these breweries were frequently pointed out to me. A typical layout would juxtapose three buildings: farmouse, seed barn and brewery. An external grindstone might complete the picture.

In all of these regions, the use of berry-bearing juniper twig, as a filter, preservative, and flavouring is central, but it seems to be given the greatest importance in Gotland, where the bush is ever-present on miles of heathland.

I saw three farmhouse breweries that make Gotlandsricka, and in each juniper was boiled in water to disinfect vessels and tools, as well as in the preparation of liquor for mashing and sparging. Juniper sticks are used to stir the brew.

The amounts and duration of juniper used have a significant impact on the aroma and flavour of the beer, and these judgments are important in the art of brewing Gotlandsdricka. The size of a batch is typically around 100 litres.

While all the Nordic-Baltic brewers use malted barley, Finnish Sahti sometimes has rye and oats. On Gotland, smoked barley malt is used.

In the days before other sources of power, and indirect heat brewers used either wind, sun or fire to dry malt.

The Gotlanders seem least inclined to adopt new methods. Like their neighbours, they are not short of birch and pine to stoke their kilns. Brewers on the south of the island are known for using especially heavily-smoked malt.

Another feature of Gotland brewing that may be very old is the addition of sugar, or - more significantly - honey.

These primings are sometimes added in the kettle, but they are also employed in the cellar, to ensure the beer continues to ferment and does not turn sour. This form of "cask-conditioning" also increases the alcohol content.

In all of the Baltic-Nordic brews, some hops are used, and these may be locally grown. Again, the Gotlanders seem keenest on this.

Not all Baltic-Nordic brewers boil their wort, and this omission is common in the south of Gotland. The Finns and Gotlanders use bakers' yeast, while the Norwegians originally relied on cultures residing on stirring sticks. Today, they culture their own.

Beers made in this way are reckoned to have in the region of 5-9 per cent alcohol, though the Gotland tradition of adding sugar or honey can boost that, possibly to 12 per cent in a long-matured brew.

Gotland has 60,000 people, 96 churches, and several hundred brewers, sharing an island 90 miles long and about 35 wide. More than 50 enter an annual championship for the Gotlandsdricka.

At Ostergarn, near Katthammarsvik, in the east of the island, brewer Sture Lingstrom showed me a tiny, two-floored building, with a slatted upper floor, which serves as a maltings, bakery and smokery.

While most local brewers ferment in milk churns and rack into plastic jerricans, he ages some of his beer in an oak cask, each time disinfected with juniper.

He mashes in a wooden butt, and brews in a wash-boiler. Like all makers of Gotlandsdricka, he has his own technique. Rather than using whole hops, he makes them into a tea to add to the kettle. While most local brewers ferment in milk churns and rack into plastic jerricans, he ages some of his beer in an oak cask, each time disinfected with juniper.

He served me a 14 day-old beer that was russet in colour, milky, sweet and spicy, with some raw alcohol flavours. Another of the same age but from wood had much more smoke and juniper, with what seemed like salty notes. A three-month version was still cloudy, but more orangey in colour, with warm, Madeiralike notes.

A three year-old was much brighter, with smoky flavours and a Lambic sourness. A dark red vintage, very perfumy, turned out to be not Gotlandsdricka but dandelion wine.

Sture was proving to be dangerously enthusiastic. He pressed upon me various bottles for the road, and seemed about to offer me eggs and potatoes.

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Published Online: APR 13, 2000
Published in Print: DEC 1, 1996
In: What's Brewing

Brew Travel - Beer Review - Historical

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