Tastes, Travel

Sahti – My Search for Traditional Finnish Beer

Brewing a traditional sahti (photo from distantmirror.wordpress.com).

Another Finnish bar, and another Finnish bartender looking at me like I’m a mental patient on the lam.

I’m getting to used to this feeling. It happens every time I ask for sahti, the traditional Finnish beer. I’ve struck out everywhere. At every place I ducked into a few days ago in Helsinki. At Panimoravintola Koulu here in Turku – my question riled the barkeep there the most. At Alvar, the expat Italian behind the bar is far less put out. And he clues me in.

What I’m Doing Wrong

First, I was mis-pronouncing “sahti.” It’s not like it’s spelled. You say “sock tea,” as in tea brewed in a sock. But you give the “ck” a bit of gravel to it, a kind of Hebrew slant on the syllable.

Sahti – the taste of the forest in a metal cup.

Second, I assumed that Finland has some sort of pride in its traditional brew. Why wouldn’t it? I mean, it’s made out of cool stuff like juniper and rye. It hits pretty hard. What’s not to love? Well, Finland isn’t rooted in the past. They favor a good kebab, apparently, to a reindeer repast. And when it comes to beer, they prefer large amounts of whiz-colored lager to earthy-brown brews served in a small silver cup. It’s the stuff a Finn’s mothball-scented grandpa drinks, not the young and hip. I don’t qualify as young, and I am too metal to be hip. But a guy my age asking for sahti is an oddity. It’s also a bit of an under-the-radar quaff, almost like a moonshine. It tends to be small-batch stuff that the big brewers eschew.

The Italian has no sahti. But his wisdom arms me for the return to Helsinki.

Successful Sahti Sighting … and Sipping

There, I find sahti – the Lammin Sahti Oy brand – in a kitschy farm setting at Zetor near the city center. The bartender is a bit surprised by my order. I explain that trying local/regional food and drink is part of the reason I travel. He seems fascinated that I know sahti exists, and that I want it.

A glimpse of the beer menu at Alvar in Turku – some fine selections, but no sahti.

A few moments later, I have a small silver vessel – a cross between a ladle and a cup. The sahti is dark brown and opaque. I take a sip.

And find that sahti tastes exactly like the forest smells. It reminds me of pine trees, wind, cool air. I absolutely love it. It’s strong, but not absurdly so – probably 8-10 percent ABV. There’s little carbonation, but I don’t mind the flatness.

Why Isn’t Sahti a Big Deal?

I can’t figure out why Finland isn’t nuts about sahti. And if you’ve had sahti-influenced ales – Samuel Adams Norse Legend or Dogfish Head Sah’Tea, to name a few – rest assured that they’re not even in the ballpark. They’re tasty, but they are far different from what you’ll get in Finland.

If you’re an exotic beer fan, don’t show up in Finland unprepared like I did. I assumed sahti would flow like wine. Do your research. Google “sahti in Finland” in a bunch of different ways. Make your game plan, and figure out what else to do while you search for sahti.The late beer legend Michael Jackson (the un-gloved one) has a nice write-up about sahti, but some of it is outdated.

And pronounce it right!

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