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An Introduction to Farmhouse Ales
A Few Sips and the Bigger Picture
In days gone by, European farmers brewed beer from their own grains. This was a drink made by the people, for the people. They prepared the grains themselves, added flavors that grew nearby, and fermented the brew with yeast that was in their family. The brewers were regular farming folk who passed on the craft by word of mouth.
In the first millennium, such farmhouse traditions formed the primary way of brewing in Europe. Later, these domestic traditions were superseded, from the twelfth century onward, by beer that was produced more professionally and efficiently. By the twentieth century, preindustrial-style farmhouse brewing had all but disappeared from Europe. It remained in only a few isolated places.
A primitive form of farmhouse brewing was preserved in a few of the northernmost countries in Europe. This created sahti in Finland, koduõlu in Estonia, gotlandsdricke in Sweden, maltøl in Norway, and the kaimikas beers of Lithuania. Sahti is the best known, but these are all part of the same extended family of ancient farmhouse ales.
These ales are the best surviving examples of what European beer was like before professionally brewed hopped beer became commonplace in the late Middle Ages. Although farmhouse brewing traditions underwent partial modernization in the twentieth century, they still offer a fascinating view of brewing in the Middle Ages and the Viking Age.
Ancient ales are sometimes re-created via fragmented information from archaeological finds and historical texts, supplemented with educated guesses about forgotten crafts. What the surviving farmhouse ales such as sahti bring to the table are practical methods that work without thermometers, stainless steel, or modern brewer's yeast. As a bonus, sahti and its cousins can even give hints of what medieval ale tasted like, and I can be quite certain that at times it tasted pretty darned good! Admittedly, the primitive folk ales of today aren't a time machine that can take us directly back to how things were a thousand years ago, but in this book I will argue that they can come close.
A few breweries in northern Europe have scaled up and commercialized the old domestic farmhouse techniques, but these folk beers are rarely exported, and they can be hard to find even in their homelands. However, this is only a small obstacle to tasting fresh malty farmhouse ale that is unlike any industrial beer sold today. Sahti is a traditional form of homebrewing, and here I will unlock the doors to brewing sahti and other ancient ales, whether you are new to brewing or an experienced brewer.
Before embarking any further, I should clarify that today "farmhouse ale" refers to beers that have their roots in farms but are not necessarily brewed on farms. It is a very generic term — at one time, most beer in Europe was farmhouse ale, after all. Therefore, the term does not describe a particular beer style, nor is it bound to any specific country, ingredient, or brewing technique.
Everyday and Feast Ales
Farmhouse ales have been made in different strengths for different purposes. In wide stretches of northern Europe, low-alcohol ales used to be part of the diet and drunk by everyone, children included. At feasts, however, the ale was expected to be heady and rich in taste. In Nordic farmhouses of yore, the idea of a feast without ale would have been as ridiculous as that of a pub with no beer.
Besides the alcohol content, this division had a notable effect on ingredients and brewing techniques. Everyday ales were easy and economical to brew on a weekly basis for the whole household, while at northern European feasts, both the quality and the quantity of the ale were a matter of pride. As recently as the 1960s, weddings in the districts where sahti thrived were celebrated for several days, and the last drops of this drink practically marked the end of the feast.
Sahti and its closest relatives are clearly feast ales, with an alcohol content typically in the range of 5–9 percent. Even today, sahti is usually made for special events such as Christmas celebrations or weddings. Surely the character of the feasts and the associated drinking customs have helped to preserve the traditions.
Low-alcohol farmhouse ales, on the other hand, are largely extinct, or heavy-handedly modernized. Actually, what I call here everyday ales or low-alcohol ales haven't always been beers: some versions were sour fermented cereal beverages that contained no alcohol to speak of. Nevertheless, traditional cereal drinks such as kvass in Eastern Europe, kalja in Finland, kali in Estonia, gira in Lithuania, and svagdricka in Sweden reveal interesting facts about the prehistory of beer. While this book mostly discusses feast ales, I will briefly delve into this much overlooked side of beer traditions in the chapter "Low-Alcohol Farmhouse Ales" (page 95).
In addition, there are medium-strength farmhouse ales, which bring a smile to the lips but do not stop the work. Such ales were served, for example, during communal work in which the workers were unpaid but provided with beer. Any such distinction in terms of strength becomes blurred in some regions, however — at least these days when the flavorful premium version is drunk more often. While most sahtis even today are deceptively strong, at 7 to 9 percent alcohol, Lithuanian farmhouse ales, for example, are typically very drinkable at around 6 percent.
The most noteworthy remnants of ancient European farmhouse ales alive today are found in the Nordic and Baltic regions. The Nordic countries are Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden. Sometimes these countries are together referred to as Scandinavia, but the most prevalent definition of Scandinavia includes only Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. The Baltic region is formed by Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. All these countries are linked by the Baltic Sea, which throughout history has been an important route of immigration, trade, and warfare. Through the expansion of the Vikings in AD 800–1050, the Nordic influence can be seen in, for example, the British Isles and Russia. While the Vikings are usually thought of as Scandinavians, apparently some Finns joined them, and there were Baltic tribes on the coast of the Baltic Sea that lived much as the Vikings did.
The map of surviving farmhouse brewing traditions is still being honed in 2018. The domestic brewers do not always make a noise about themselves, and nobody can claim to be fully aware of all areas with living traditions. Evidently, farmhouse brewing has survived also in Latvia, but little is known about it. In Sweden, farmhouse brewing is alive only on the island of Gotland. In Denmark, the traditions faded relatively recently, but at least one brewer still practices the ancient craft. Some kind of farmhouse brewing is alive in parts of Russia as well, at least in the republic of Chuvashia and the Perm Krai region.
An Overview of Farmhouse Brewing
The brewing practices of the farm folk have been extremely diverse, but in essence the ancient feast ales such as sahti, koduõlu, gotlandsdricke, maltøl, and kaimikas beer are crafted as follows.
Malted and unmalted grains, juniper branches, hops, and yeast are the basic ingredients of the northern farmhouse ales. Malted barley is the most common base grain, but rye, oats, and wheat too are used, in both malted and unmalted forms.
Regrettably, traditional home malting has largely disappeared, and now most brewers use commercial malt. In Norway and Lithuania, some brewers still perform malting in the traditional way. Meanwhile, in Finland, a few farmers have revived home malting but with somewhat modernized methods.
In the Nordic and Baltic farmhouse ales, juniper is a more important brewing herb than hops. Traditionally, juniper branches are used as a filtering aid in draining the sweet liquid from the filtering vessel while leaving the grain solids behind. This gives a delicate coniferous taste somewhat different from the berries. Some brewers further enhance the flavor with a juniper infusion, created by infusing branches in hot water. If hops are used, the quantities are small, and many sahtis are unhopped.
In the old days, farmhouses had their own yeast strains for baking and brewing, sometimes using the same one for both jobs. Around 1900, commercial baker's yeast started to replace the house strains, and by the 1950s sahti was fermented predominantly with commercial baker's yeast. Some brewers in Norway and Lithuania hold on to their traditional heirloom yeasts, and some of them are still fermenting with a yeast originating from who knows when. Today most northern farmhouse brewers use baker's yeast, which gives a rustic edge to the ale, since this baking yeast has not been bred or manufactured for brewing.
Much of the character of these ales comes from the traditional brewing process, which evolved from using what farm equipment was available and relied on wooden vessels. Although many Nordic and Baltic brewers now use stainless steel equipment, their brewing practices largely follow the old ways, as if the brewing vessels were made of wood and thermometers had not been invented.
Brewing begins by mixing water with crushed grains to form a mash. The purpose of this step is converting grain starches to sugars, as in all brewing, but the farmhouse techniques for raising and maintaining the temperature are varied and often highly unusual. For example, many sahti brewers add water in several steps over five to eight hours, and even the ancient technique of heating the mash with hot stones is still used by a few brewers.
After this, the mash is scooped into a filtering vessel, on top of fresh juniper branches, which act as a filter. In the end, the resulting malty liquid, or wort, flows out of the vessel, leaving the grain solids behind.
Boiling the wort with hops became common in the late Middle Ages. It gives the beer a bitter edge, removes haze-causing proteins, and acts as a preservative, extending the life of the beer. However, this method did not gain a foothold in all northern farmhouses, since farmers could seldom afford to buy big kettles. Hence, sahti brewers would skip the wort boil altogether or instead boil their mash. An ale made from unboiled wort is hazy and does not keep well, but at its best it has an exquisite cereal-malty freshness and smooth, viscous mouthfeel. The lack of a boil is one of the main features connecting sahti with medieval and Viking Age ale. Often, traditional Nordic and Baltic brews are raw ales, devoid of any boiling steps.
These days, some northern farmhouse brewers do boil their wort, but the boiling time can vary wildly, from a few minutes to several hours, again creating something completely different from modern commercial beer.
Typically, these ales are fermented warm for a day or two and then transferred to a cool cellar. Often a considerable amount of residual sweetness remains, and slow secondary fermentation keeps the yeast active, protecting the drink from growing stale or souring. These ales are usually served within one to three weeks from the brewing day.
A Taste of History
Beer produced on a farmstead with wooden vats, within a week, and without a clue about brewing science? It must be sour and foul! Once I was a skeptic too, but on my travels I have tasted fine ales made with extremely archaic techniques by regular farmhouse folk. On the other hand, some archaeologists have tried to re-create ancient beers by working from just educated guesses about the processes, and failed miserably. Clearly, there is a plethora of folk wisdom within the old farmhouse brewing techniques.
The ancient brewing methods certainly bring their own taste to these ales, and the first sip of sahti may taste odd, as your very first beer did. These ales also defy classification into a particular beer style. In addition to regional differences, there is enormous variation from brewer to brewer, and even sahti from the same brewer can taste different each time, particularly on account of differences in age and storage.
These ales are often turbid and have low carbonation. Sahti is often completely still. The backbone of the taste is usually in firm fresh maltiness and substantial sweetness. Typical flavors include cereals, bread, juniper, and assorted fruits and spices from the fermentation. The overall impression is of something extremely fresh, nourishing, smooth, and drinkable. The alcohol content is often deceptively hidden. Although these ales may go sour with age, sourness is usually considered a flaw or simply a sign of being too old or improperly stored.
Yes, the shelf life of these ales is short, but for someone who grew up with the tradition, that isn't a concern — the important thing is that the ale is perfect at the feast.
I will attempt to keep the terminology at a minimum, but these well-established brewing terms are essential in describing how beer is made.
Mixing raw cereals with hot water creates a starchy gruel that yeast cannot ferment into alcohol. Therefore, brewers need malt, which contain enzymes that are able to convert starches into sugars. The process of making it, called malting, begins with steeping the grains in water. Then, the wet grains are allowed to germinate, generating the enzymes. In nature, germination would give life to a new plant, but the maltster halts this process by drying the grains. Simultaneously, drying creates a whole spectrum of new flavors, such as bread, toffee, and honey — the tastes generally referred to as malty. The malting process is very laborious and takes at least a week, but one malting can yield a year's supply.
Except with a few special malt types, the conversion of starches to sugars occurs on the brew day when malt is mixed with hot water. Some brewers add unmalted cereals to the mix, since pale malt usually has enough enzymes to convert a considerable amount of starch from raw grain along the way.
The Brewing Process
With very few exceptions, a modern brewery is operated as follows: First, malt is mixed with hot water. This procedure is called mashing, and the mixture is the mash. Then the sweet malt-sugar-filled liquid, the wort, is drained from the mash in a process called lautering. The vessels in which these processes take place, in turn, are called the mash tun and lauter tun. After lautering, the wort is boiled with hops, cooled, fermented, and packaged.
The ancient farmhouse brewing process can be quite different from this, and many of the brews in this book are raw ales, where neither mash nor wort is boiled. Nevertheless, the terms above are useful.
Gravity, Alcohol Content, and Residual Extract
Farmhouse brewers rarely measure alcohol content or the property called gravity, but the brewing literature considers these to be fundamental measurements, and they are useful for understanding the process. The concentration of sugars in the wort is a large factor in the alcoholic strength, and brewers refer to gravity when speaking of the wort's sugar content, or, more precisely, the extract content. In beer, the extract consists principally of sugars, along with smaller amounts of other substances, such as proteins, extracted from the malt, unmalted cereals, and other sugar sources.
I prefer to express gravity in degrees Plato (°P), referring to the concentration of the extract in the wort as a percentage by weight. Fermentation turns the majority of the extract into alcohol, which for this book is measured in percentage alcohol by volume (ABV). Some residual extract remains, which gives the beer its sweetness and body, and the amount in the finished product too is measured in degrees Plato.
For example, a typical modern beer with 5 percent ABV is usually made from a 12°P gravity wort, from which 8°P from the extract is fermented into alcohol and 4°P remains in the beer as residual extract.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Viking Age Brew"
Copyright © 2019 Mika Laitinen.
Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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Table of Contents
Foreword Randy Mosher v
Part I Tradition, Culture, and History 1
1 An Introduction to Farmhouse Ales
A Few Sips and the Bigger Picture 3
2 Brew Day with a Master
Learning the Craft the Traditional Way 15
3 The Landscape of European Farmhouse Ales
A Family Tree of Folk Beers 21
4 History of Farmhouse Ales
What Beer Was Like a Thousand Years Ago 35
5 Drinking Sahti
Is It a Beer Style? 59
6 Commercial Production
Like Homemade? 77
7 Low-Alcohol Farmhouse Ales
Nourishment for Work 95
Part II The Craft of a Farmhouse Brewer
8 Grain and Malt
Once Brewers Did It All Themselves 109
That Mysterious Touch in Liquid Lore 121
10 Brewing Herbs
Preserving, Filtering, and Flavoring Too 133
11 The Brewing Process
How Sahti Is Born 141
Part III In your Kitchen or Brewery
12 Doing It Ourselves
Tips for Brewing 165
13 Re-creating Medieval and Viking Ales
Brew Like a Viking 183
Examples and Starting Points 193
A Review of References and Bibliography 213