Foam in the Far North
The Nordic countries seem to fall too far north of the European “beer belt” to be known for great beer. The region’s distilled spirits are more common on American retail shelves than any of its beers, except those of the Danish brewing giant Carlsberg. And a history of prohibition movements and tight government control of alcohol hardly suggests a friendly beer culture.
But for this beer lover, Finland had three strong attractions that made a trip across seven time zones an exciting prospect. It is the home of sahti, one of the oldest surviving beer styles in the world. Next, Finland lies along the trade route that took dark ales into Russia, and one of Finland’s major breweries has for half a century brewed a world-class Baltic porter. Finally, in the past decade or less, Finland has seen the growth of a small but impassioned craft beer culture.
Finland, Young and Old
Finland is a young republic, having emerged from Swedish oversight in the early nineteenth century, and Russian rule in 1917. Finland is not well-known to Americans, who are likely to lump it together with Sweden, Norway and Denmark under the label “Scandinavian.” In fact, the Finnish language is most closely related to Estonian and Hungarian. The lack of close linguistic ties to any widely-used European language means that most citizens of Finland learn English and speak it with a fluency that puts monolingual Americans to shame.
It is a country with a progressive tradition: in 1906, Finnish women were the first in Europe–and the second in the world (behind New Zealand)–to gain the right to vote. But in the decades since World War Two, it has also tread a delicate path between its Western economic partners and its powerful neighbor to the east, Russia.
The break-up of the Soviet Union and the entry of Finland into the European Union in 1995 have brought changes to every aspect of life, including beer.
A Small National Treasure
The Kalevala is the national epic poem of Finland, collected in written form in the nineteenth century, but based on oral traditions many centuries old. It contains some 400 lines about the origin of brewing, more lines than are devoted to the origin of man. Brewing has probably been a part of life for the peoples of this region for at least a thousand years.
Finnish sahti is the modern expression of that brewing tradition, and, along with Belgian lambics, it is said to be the oldest beer style still in production.
Sahti is brewed with barley malt and rye, which can now be purchased as “sahti malt,” but which used to be steeped as raw grain in local lakes or streams, then dried in purpose-built saunas. No hops are used: instead, a layer of fresh-cut juniper branches are placed in the fermentation vessel, a long canoe-like tun called a kuurna, made from a single log. Wooden sticks in the base raise the juniper branches so that the fermented sahti can flow out a hole near the bottom.
These days, regular bakers’ yeast is used: in days past, a branch of juniper was saved from one batch and kept in the sauna until the next brew, when it was used to inoculate the next batch of wort.
Sahti is a cloudy, deep gold, with a strong aroma of banana and cloves. It is still and fruity, with a light- to medium-mouthfeel and a clean, astringent finish. At 8 percent or more, it is a delicious, easy-drinking beer that can creep up on you.
This perishable but potent beverage is made in two small adjacent regions of southern Finland for weddings or celebrations at mid-summer or Christmas. Unlike lambics, which entered small-scale commercial production some generations ago, sahti has largely remained what most beers must once have been–homebrew. Only recently have any sahti brewers tried to go commercial.
Two hours north of Helsinki, the countryside is flat rolling plains honey-combed with lakes, and covered with coniferous and birch forests. The area of Lammi is a favorite vacation resort for urban Helsinki folk who come to enjoy the outdoors, the boating and lakeside saunas.
Lammi is in the heart of sahti country. This is where Pekka and Sirpa Kääriäinen established Lammin Sahti, the country’s first commercial sahti brewery, in 1987, despite cumbersome regulations and–at times–the reluctance of customers not used to the added cost taxes attached to the commercial product.
Pekka has been brewing since his student days; his wife Sirpa is now the brewer. The two of them do it all–brewing, bottling, restaurant accounts, retail deliveries–and run a small log-built restaurant that caters to visitors.
It’s demanding work, but Lammin Sahti, and the two other commercial sahti brewers, now have a firm identity grounded in an appreciation of traditional culture. “We don’t have so many traditional Finnish products,” says Pekka, “so people like sahti–even if they don’t drink it. Other than sahti, Finland has rye bread, fish cakes–and Nokia phones! Most Finnish people have never had sahti. They say ‘It’s good that we have it, but drink it? No!’”
He toys with the idea of reaching a larger market, but sahti will only keep from three weeks to two months, and it must be cold. Exporting isn’t practical: sahti may have to remain one of those small national treasures that the curious must sample on site.
A Big Brew from a Big Brewer
From the smallest of commercial brewing operations to one of the largest: the new Sinebrychoff plant at Kerava outside Helsinki is the second largest brewery owned by its parent company, Denmark’s Carlsberg. With its state-of-the-art computer control and small staffing needs, the Kerava brewery proudly claims to be the most modern in Europe.
Modernity and staffing efficiency are not usually the friend of distinctive beer. But Sinebrychoff–or “Koff,” as it’s called–has some surprises for beer lovers.
Founded by a Russian, Nikolai Sinebrychoff, in 1819, Sinebrychoff is the oldest brewing concern in the Baltic region. Today it is one of Finland’s “Big Three.” As in the United States, there are three companies that own 80 to 90 percent of the beer market, the Finnish trio being Hartwell, Koff, and the smaller Olvi.
Also as in the United States, the main product of all three is standard lager. But unlike Hartwell and Olvi, Koff maintains a classic non-lager beer, and it experiments with limited release seasonal beers.
The classic is the Koff Porter. This stunning Baltic porter evokes all the traditions of the great nineteenth century stouts and porters that were developed for export to Russia. However, it is not a survivor of those days, but more of a re-invention, first brewed in the spring of 1957. Finland, like the United States, has a history of hopelessly muddled policies concerning alcohol, including national prohibition in the 1920s and 30s. When prohibition was lifted in 1932, only lager production was allowed, and only at strengths under 2.5%. Many old styles were never revived.
Until 1995 and Finland’s entry to the EU, the government had a large say in what beers a brewery made. Since then, Koff has enjoyed its freedom to brew by creating one-off seasonals. These are brewed as a single batch only–albeit in a huge facility.
“In Finland, there are two kinds of drinkers.” explained head brewer Kimmo Jääskeläinen. “One is taste-testing all the time. We make our limited editions for him. The other is allowed to take one beer a week after the sauna. They must have their regular beer, which cannot change.”
During my visit, the seasonal was a strong, bottom-fermented Easter beer, Pääsiäisolut. Jääskeläinen was inspired on his last trip to Denver as a GABF judge by the range of chocolate beers. The Pääsiäisolut was remarkably chocolatey, like a liquid Cadbury’s cream egg, but Jääskeläinen was cryptic about whether real chocolate or chocolate malt was responsible.
“In our seasonals, we are trying not to be orthodox. We’ll try an English beer with Cascade hops. There is no single right way to do beer. The only ‘right’ way to create beers is to create beers people like,” he said.
The Koff specialty beers are hard or impossible to find in the United States, and will only ever have a tiny share of the market at home in Finland. But the blissful fact is that, among the good beer bars in Finland, there are places where you can walk in and order a Koff porter on draft.
The Craft Beer Activists
In the early 1990s, liberalization of the alcohol laws in Finland was still five years away. Brewpubs were illegal. The Alko stores–the state liquor retail stores–were an obstacle to interesting imports. The big three produced light lagers. Finnish homebrewing of sahti seemed to offer no inspiration for innovation.
Against this backdrop, in 1990, frustrated beer lovers looked to England for a model of beer activism, and founded the Finnish Society for Traditional Beers–POS (Perinteisen Oluen Seura)–a CAMRA style organization. For many specialty beer drinkers in Finland today, CAMRA is the group to emulate, and English real ales are one of the highest forms of the brewer’s art.
Legislation in 1995 allowed brewpubs to operate, and the range of imported beers improved. In 2000, POS published a Good Pub Guide to Finland (in Finnish and English), which covers about 100 pubs all over the country that provide or brew a variety of beers and what the society terms “beer credibility”–an understanding of how to run a good pub, care for and serve beer, and provide hospitable surroundings.
There are still regulatory hiccoughs that restrict access to good beer, but some may, perversely, have helped build a rich pub and cafe culture. Beers weaker than 4.7% alcohol can be sold in regular retail stores, but stronger beers can only be sold in the Alko stores or in pubs or restaurants with appropriate licenses. Since it can be tricky to get a beer accepted by the Alko bureaucracy, the greatest variety of domestic and imported beers is found in the good beer pubs and cafes, not in the government stores.
Juha Lehto has been a pioneer in both importing fine beer, and building a distinctive empire of original bars in Helsinki that have inspired others (see sidebar). He is also the founder of the Leading Beer Bars Association, established over six years ago. To be a member, a bar must meet exacting requirements for beer choice, beer condition, serving standards and staff education.
For its 23 members, the Association arranges for a draft beer of the month, not previously available in Finland. For that month, the beer is only available in member bars; thereafter, some become more widely available in the country. Last year, Brooklyn Brewing Co. and Anchor beers were both featured.
The Passions Come Together
All these beer passions–the support for indigenous beer, the enthusiasm for large breweries that continue to produce specialty beer, and the consumer movement that is pushing for greater choice and quality in Finnish beer–come together at the Helsinki Beer Festival, held each spring.
The Helsinki Beer Festival, now in its fifth year, was founded by drinks and food writer Mikko Montonen, and beer promoter Markku Korhonen. The festival is part industry event, part public event, with bands playing at night, including, in 2001, Finland’s best known band, Ultra Bra who closed the festival on the final night. This is a festival where the music is worth the price of admission.
It is held at the Cable Factory (Kappelitehdas) in Ruoholahti, a former Nokia site turned into a cultural and arts complex. In the tall, narrow Sea Cable Hall where the Nokia company operated in its pre-cell phone days, the massive spools of underwater cable are long gone, replaced by miniature beer cafes for the festival. The lighting is low and the atmosphere is much more like a city park in the evening than the conference-hall setting of many American fests. Drinkers stroll from cafe to cafe, stopping to sit and enjoy one of the 300 beers on offer–including many of Finland’s over 30 plus micros and brewpubs.
Each year, the festival has a theme. Last year, Montonen introduced a Finnish audience to American craft beers. “This year the special theme will be organic beers,” he writes. “We expect to find a nice selection, especially from the U.K., Germany, and Belgium–hopefully Finnish micros as well.”
The Festival dates are April 25 to 27, 2002, once again at the Cable Factory.
If you decide to attend, you are lucky that you only need a couple additional words you haven’t already picked up in this article: olut means beer, and kippis means cheers.
Discover some brewing gems in the far north. Kippis!
Julie Johnson is the editor of All About Beer Magazine, the oldest American publication for people who love beer. Johnson won the 2007 Beer Journalism Award (Trade and Specialty)—later named the Michael Jackson Beer Journalism Award—from the Brewers’ Association. She has had a regular column in the News and Observer, and now in the Independent Weekly, both based in North Carolina.