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JUN/JUL 2006 | COLUMNS | BEAUMONT

Sahtis And Saunas In Lammi
By Stephen Beaumont

One of the truly wonderful things about writing on the global drinks industry is the cast of interesting and amenable characters you get to meet along the way. Another is the wealth of unexpected experiences encountered.

Still, in the interests of fair and objective journalism, all writers need to set limits and establish a social or intellectual border beyond which they will not tread. For some, it might be not seeing industry figures on a social basis, while for others, it could be the separation of work and family life. For me, it’s always been this: Don’t get naked with brewers or brewery owners.

In Finland, I broke my rule.

Now, lest you think there was something lascivious involved, let me assure you that no brewer was trying to charm her double IPA into my good books, nor was I engaged in any untoward, uh, product sampling. No, I was in Finland and I was drinking sahti, so the next logical step seemed to be to get into the sauna.

But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself, since how I got to that sauna is a tale in itself.

The month was April, and spring was very much in the air in southern Ontario, where I lay my head when not traveling. So, flush with satisfaction at having survived another Canadian winter, I boarded a plane and flew off to Finland, thereby plunging myself right back into the season I had just triumphantly exited. Granted, I knew from weather reports that the temperature in Helsinki would not rise much above freezing for the length of my stay, but as the plane touched down and I gazed out the window, I spied a thick layer of snow. No one had warned me there’d be snow!

I had no time to mourn my temporary loss of spring, though, as my plane was late and my hosts, drinks scribe Mikko Montonen and One Pint Pub owner Markku Korhonen, were anxious to hit the road, bound first for my hotel and then, in quick succession, the train to what’s known in Finnish beer circles as the country’s Sahti Belt.

Sahti, for those unfamiliar with the style, is a form of indigenous Finnish beer often described as rye beer, but which in fact owes more of its character to a uniqueness of production than to any rye content, which can be as low as 5% of the total grains used. First, and perhaps most curiously, there is no boil in the making of a sahti, and thus no real opportunity to add hops. (Some sahti breweries add small amounts of hops during filtration or fermentation, mainly as a preservative.)

Second, the mashed wort is filtered through a bed of juniper branches, which not surprisingly bestows upon the beer a significant juniper character. And finally, the yeast used is not a brewer’s yeast but a top-fermenting baker’s yeast, which two sahti producers separately suggested to me is likely the same exact strain for all commercial sahti brewers.

Mikko and I made the train, and an hour or so later were met at Hämeenlinna station by Pekka Kääriäinen, proprietor of Lammin Sahti Oy, almost certainly Finland’s most prominent commercial sahti brewery and, to my tastes, without question its best. (Markku, whose mobile phone scarcely stopped ringing the entire drive into Helsinki, was preoccupied with Helsinki Beer Festival preparations and so could not make the trip with us.) From the train, we drove to our first stop a short distance away in Tuulos.

To call the location of the Lammin Sahti store and brewpub incongruous is to severely understate reality. Tucked away in a shopping mall, flanked by a supermarket and fast-food outlet, the traditionally decorated Sipen Saluuna brewpub, with its attached, hallway-sized Pekan Puoti store, seems not only out of place, but actually out of time. Nevertheless, it’s a welcome oasis in the highway-side mall, open daily from 11:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m., and I’m sure it’s a busy spot on the weekends.

It was at Sipen Saluuna that I first sampled the banana-ish, fruity-spicy Lammin Sahti, as brewed on fairly modern equipment by Pekka’s wife, Sirpa. It was impressive, and the more shelf-stable, sahti-like Puhti beer the Kääriäinens have contract-brewed for them only slightly less so. But my true sahti drinking experience, and the beer’s more visceral impact, still lay ahead of me.

Leaving the mall, Pekka drove Mikko and me to Lammi, where the main brewery sits nestled on the shores of a small lake. Here, the Kääriäinens not only run a more traditional sahti brewery, but also a charming sahti pub called Sahtihaarikka, open only during the summer from noon to midnight and by appointment at other times. It being decidedly un-summery, Mikko and I waited while Pekka opened up the building and started the heat flowing, warming ourselves in the interim with bottles of the faintly hoppy, still profoundly fruity and tannin-accented, 7% alcohol Puhti.

After a short chat and drink, we loaded back into Pekka’s car, this time armed with a jug of Lammin Sahti and what resembled a small, wooden bucket. Finally, we were sauna bound.

The “bucket,” I was soon informed, was a haarikka, the traditional vessel for drinking sahti. Handmade from juniper, it is a communal drinking pot which, as it grows wetter and wetter, releases the fragrant scent of the wood and sends it wafting into the face of the drinker, thus intensifying the sahti’s natural juniper character. We drank, sat in the wood-fueled “smoke sauna,” drank some more, plunged into the lake through the hole that had been cut in the ice, and celebrated our survival with another drink.

Sadly, traditional sahti’s delicate character makes it unsuitable for export, since it is ideally consumed within two weeks of fermentation. So for a true sahti fix, I’m afraid there’s no choice but to travel to Finland. And until I return, I’ll keep my haarikka moist by attempting the occasional juniper-scented IPA or Belgian spiced ale.

Sipen Saluuna and Pekan Puoti
(brewpub and store)
Kauppakeskus Tuuloinen (Tuuloinen Mall)
Pohjoistentie 70
14810 Tuulos, Finland

Sahtihaarikka
Liesontie
16900 Lammi, Finland

Lammin Sahti
sahti.com

CBN Associate Editor Stephen Beaumont brings his passionate and unapologetic opinions to the Internet each and every month at WorldofBeer.com. His most recent book is The Great Canadian Beer Guide, Second Edition (McArthur & Company, 2001).

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