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Sahti, the Ancient Beer of Finland, Is Not for Beginners

Growing up in Finland, I heard stories about an old-school beer called sahti. Recently, I decided to pack my car and meet with the people who actually make this elusive drink in order to broaden my sahti horizons.

Without a doubt, the global craft beer movement has arrived in the Nordic and Baltic countries. Places like Estonia are now booming, with new breweries seemingly popping up non-stop. But like everywhere else, the beer scene is plagued by generic and utterly boring IPAs and APAs.

Don't get me wrong. I love a good India Pale Ale, but it's getting to the point that finding something truly original is next to impossible.

Growing up in Finland, I heard stories about an old-school beer called sahti. Back then most people didn't even consider it a beer. Some people didn't even consider it alcohol. Sahti was in a category of its own: some sort homemade hooch that apparently made you super-drunk and more likely to see the business end of a knife than any other beverage. Or so I thought.

Since then, the drink has received some well-deserved attention from beer enthusiasts worldwide. With the advent of the so-called craft beer revolution, there's no better time than now for sahti to take on the world. Yet it remains as mysterious and unknown as ever. A rarity in Finland—a frigging liquid unicorn everywhere else.

To be honest, I never really liked sahti. At best, I thought it was unbalanced and aromatically just plain awkward. I wanted to like it but just couldn't. So I decided to pack my car and meet with the people who actually make this elusive drink in order to broaden my sahti horizons.

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Petteri Lähdeniemi in front of his brewery. All photos by the author.

My first stop is Finlandia Sahti, one of very few commercial sahti breweries. I meet with owner and brewer Petteri Lähdeniemi, who takes me inside an old barn where he makes his sahti.

"This used to be the pigsty," says Petteri while offering me a glass of sahti in a small tasting room. "I worked in the military at the time and was looking for a change of scenery. I read in the paper a story about retiring entrepreneurs who didn't have anyone to continue their business. That's where I saw Finlandia Sahti. I had some experience with brewing beer at home and after talking with my wife I decided to leave from the Finnish Defence Forces and become a sahti brewer."

Petteri describes sahti as a "drink for celebrations and all kinds of festivities." But, like so many others, he find it difficult to define what sahti actually is.

The Finnish countryside.

"You can travel across Finland and find all different kinds of sahti. Some would argue that sahti has many sub-categories and prefer to call it just 'ancient beer' rather than sahti because of the various styles," Petteri tells me.

The use of grains like barley, rye, wheat, and oats vary from district to district.

Juniper was traditionally used in the brewing process, and it's still used today in most sahti, but again there doesn't seem to be any clear opinion whether it's essential or not. And don't get me even started about the hops.

Hops growing behind the barn at Finlandia Sahti.

The history of sahti is as colourful as the drink itself.

For centuries, people in Finland have been brewing sahti—an occult drink with lots of pagan nuances. In the areas where sahti was produced it was considered as a noble drink. There was no wedding without it, and it was even served during funerals. And if the party did run out of sahti...well, you know that walk of atonement scene in Game of Thrones.

I leave Finlandia Sahti slightly buzzed and more confused about the true nature of sahti than when I came in.

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Lammin Sahtia.

When I speak with Pekka Kääriäinen, the chairman of the Finnish Sahti Association and the owner of Lammin Sahti, he tells me "sahti is almost always flat, or very close to flat. So it's not fizzy, which for many people who haven't tried sahti before might be a little strange. The other important thing with sahti is the use of yeast—in this case, baking yeast."

He adds, "Many who have tried sahti only once have bad memories, either because they drank sahti that already had gone bad or it was just poorly made and they got sick. Or they just drank too much of it. People should take their time to get to know sahti and like most great drinks it's best when served with food."

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Pekka Kääriäinen puts juniper branches in the "kuurna," which gives a subtle herbal touch to his sahti.

The head brewer of Pyynikin Craft Brewery, Tuomas Pere, says that Finns should "pay more attention to sahti and make an effort to revive it, as it's truly one of the most unique beers in the world."

Pyynikin Craft Brewery produces a heavily hopped katajasahti. "Some people don't like the way we use hops in our sahti," Tuomas says. But for a sahti noob like myself, the crisp hops give it a nice edge and make it a bit more easier to approach. Tuomas, who looks like a beer-swigging rock 'n' roll Santa Claus, is hopeful about the future and plans to export sahti to the US.

"The problem is that sahti is alive and it doesn't keep very well. That is probably the main reason it hasn't conquered the world yet," he says.

Katajasahti from Pyynikin Craft Brewery.

The tradition of home-brewing sahti is so strong that it only makes sense to pit the best home-brewers against one another. With that in mind, I decide to attend the Finnish Sahti Championship, which takes place in Sastamala, very near to Finlandia Sahti where I started my journey.

Jury tasting the sahti samples at the Finnish Sahti Championship.

This year marks the competition's 25th anniversary, and 55 brewers from all over Finland have entered. Each brewer brings a judge to the competition and they taste the samples blind.

The winner gets bragging rights and a cool-looking wicker hat.

The sahti champion's wicker hat.

Although the competition takes place indoors, the real action is in the parking lot. At first, I can't believe my eyes: People are tailgating with sahti! Dozens of cars, vans, and buses with open trunks offering sahti—and for free. Each of them has their city or district written on a piece of paper, so people know what they were tasting.

Jugs from a trunk, a classic setting for sahti tasting.

On my way to my car, I see a man wearing a wicker hat and sitting between two vans. This man is Kauko Kuusikko. Kauko won the competition in 2007 but his sahti didn't make the cut this year. But his 26-year-old daughter Maria, who came third in last year's competition, is still waiting to hear how her sahti is doing after the first heat of the competition.

Sahti brewers Kauko Kuusikko and his daughter Maria.

Maria learned to make sahti from her father and she has been making sahti by herself since she was 16. She attended the competition for the first time in 2008.

"Our family has been making sahti for a hundred years or so. Me and my father have occasionally talked about forming a proper brewery. I haven't ruled it out, but it's not happening anytime soon. I want to finish school first," Maria tells me.

In the end, this year's wicker hat goes to Seppo Koskinen from Hartola.

A brewer showing his sahti from Ikaalinen in the parking lot.

It's quite possibly the most peculiar beer event I have ever been to, but definitely one of the most memorable. I cannot help but to admire the passion and enthusiasm these people have for sahti, not to mention the effort they make to keep this old tradition alive.

And even though I still have a hard time drinking an entire glass of sahti, my appreciation for it has only grown stronger.