Rustic Revelry: Farmhouse Ales in Faraway Lands

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Photo by Mika Laitinen

If you’re an all-grain homebrewer, your brewing inventory likely consists of stainless steel pots, maybe a modified cooler as a mash tun, various bits of plumbing equipment, and other pieces of modern technical gadgetry. People have been brewing for thousands of years, though, so what did they use before contemporary materials were available?

Fortunately, there are pockets of the world where brewers still use equipment and processes that have changed very little from the time of their ancestors. In Finland, Norway, and the Baltics, “farmhouse” brewing is a tradition that goes back to before Viking times. While plenty of brewers today use modern equipment and practices, some still create farmhouse ales using rustic methods. To understand how the traditional equipment and techniques work, a quick rundown of the all-grain brewing process is necessary.

Brewing the All-Grain Way

The process of brewing beer “from scratch” starts with mashing malted grains. (The more ambitious may even try their hand at malting their own grains.) Mashing is the process by which fermentable sugars and proteins are drawn from crushed malted grains soaked in hot water. In modern brewing, this is typically done by keeping the mash within a specific temperature range — usually between 145 and 155 degrees Fahrenheit — for a set period of time. This is known as a “single-step” mash. Some brews call for water to be added over multiple steps at increasing temperatures, which is known as a “multi-step” mash. The multi-step technique was developed to coax out additional sugars and soluble proteins from undermodified grains, which were commonly used during the early days of beer-brewing. In brewing and malting terms, “modification” refers to how much soluble protein is available in each grain kernel’s endosperm following the malting process. In the past, undermodified malts needed a protein rest to ensure proteins and amino acids were fully broken down and that the majority of the starch was released from the endosperm of the grain. Undermodified malts were required in the past because the malting process wasn’t as efficient, mainly due to the equipment and techniques used.

In some cases, a decoction mash was performed, which involved removing a portion of the mash, boiling it briefly, and then returning it to the mash vessel, slowly raising the temperature of the mash to the optimal starch-conversion temperature, which is about 150 degrees. Some brewers today do this painstaking process because it can draw out additional rich, malty flavors not attainable through single-step mashing.

Today, stainless steel, copper, insulated plastic, and other modern materials help simplify and streamline this process. For most of human history, however, the mashing process was done in equipment made from wood and other natural materials. Fortunately, we don’t need to go back in time to see these ancient processes and this equipment in person, or to experience a traditional farmhouse brew.

Tradition and Invention

The names of traditional farmhouse brews — which for the most part simply translate to “ale” — include sahti in Finland, koduõlu in Estonia, kaimiškas in Lithuania, gotlandsdricka in Sweden, and maltøl in Norway. While the brewers of these ales are following what’s likely an unbroken tradition, they’ve somewhat modified the equipment they use. These modifications to the equipment have little to no effect on the flavor of the ale.

Photo by Mika Laitinen
This traditional kuurna is used to make sahti which is traditionally served in a harrikka (below).

Photo by Jereme Zimmerman

The setup used by sahti brewers in Finland today generally consists of wood-fired cauldrons, electrically heated kettles or wooden tubs for mashing, and a trough-like vessel known as a kuurna for lautering. They also use a mash paddle, fermentation vesselsmade from either wood or plastic, large metal milk pails for collecting and cooling the wort, and plastic canisters for storing the fermented ale. Some brewers have a stainless steel or copper kettle, often wood-fired, for boiling the mash or wort. Sahti is generally made as a “raw ale,” meaning most brewers don’t boil the wort. In modern hop-forward brewing, a wort boil primarily acts to instill the bitterness and aroma of hops into the beer through a process called “isomerization,” and to break down proteins for a more shelf-stable product.

Conventional Kuurna

Perhaps the most exotic of these vessels is the kuurna. It resembles no piece of modern brewing equipment. Although sahti can be brewed without a kuurna, the vessel is a symbol of pride in Finland, and most farmhouse brewers use some version of it. It can be made from various substances, but a traditional kuurna is crafted from a hollowed-out log, usually aspen or pine. Once the mash has been prepared in a wooden barrel, it’s poured into the kuurna, which serves as a lauter tun (a filtering vessel).

Photo by Mika Laitinen
 Eila Tuominen brewing in her plywood kuurna.

To filter the wort from the grains, wire mesh is laid along the bottom, with some juniper branches placed on top. (Some brewers still use the older method of wood slats laid crosswise on the bottom, with straw and juniper branches arranged lengthwise.) The wort is then drawn out either by releasing a bung from a bunghole, or through a spigot. Kuurnas vary in length, material, and other qualities, but all share the same trough-like shape. Modern kuurnas are often made from stainless steel, or sometimes from welded metal or pieces of wood fitted together.

The first runnings of the wort tend to be turbid and are usually poured back into the kuurna until the wort runs clear. If hops are used, they’re boiled beforehand in a hop tea, which is then poured into the wort. (Hops were uncommon in ale prior to the 15th century, and have only begun to be incorporated into farmhouse ales over the past couple of centuries.)

Photo by Mika Laitinen
Eila Tuominen brewing sahti in Pertunmaa, Finland.

Farmhouse Ferment

From there, the wort is cooled and fermented, and the yeast is pitched. Depending on what type of yeast is used, this part of the process may vary a bit. Sahti is traditionally fermented with Finnish bread yeast, which is generally pitched at the standard ale yeast temperature of 60 to 70 degrees. Some Finns have begun to use the Norwegian heirloom ale yeast kveik, which has been bred to tolerate much higher temperatures and can be pitched from 86 to 109 degrees. Sahti is meant to be drunk soon after it’s brewed. Because of its vigorous fermentation rates, kveik-produced sahti can be ready to drink as soon as a few days after brewing, although it’s at its prime 1 to 2 weeks after brewing. It’s generally drunk without bottling or forced carbonation. If drunk while still fermenting, it’ll have residual carbonation, but most sahti is consumed flat or near flat. Sahti is a feast ale; it can be as high as 8 to 9 percent ABV, and is smooth and drinkable if brewed properly. The flavor tends to be on the sweet side and is malt-forward and filling. While sahti can be brewed sour — whether intentionally or not — sourness is considered a flaw by most farmhouse brewers.

Photo by Jereme Zimmerman
This haarikka was given to the author by Finnish writer and sahti expert Mika Laitinen.

Communal Cup

Sahti was traditionally drunk from a communal wooden vessel made from juniper called a haarikka — a custom that still persists in parts of Finland today. Each haarikka has two handles and is meant for sharing among party guests, as one handle is held and the other is taken by the next guest. Traditional Finnish wedding feasts can last for several days, and each table is provided with several haarikkas. When the last of the sahti is served, the feast is over. I was given a smaller version of a haarikka by Finnish writer and sahti expert Mika Laitinen during our summer 2019 Brew Beer Like a Yeti book tour. I like to drink my homebrewed sahti and other types of ales from it. The unique nature of the vessel, combined with the aroma of a Finnish forest that wafts up every time I take a drink, makes for a truly unique experience. If I’m passing the drink to a friend, I always give a hearty skål (a Viking/Scandinavian toast) or kippis (Finnish for “bottoms up”).

Photo by Mika Laitinen  
Wooden vats used for brewing farmhouse ales.

A Quirky Discovery

Until recently, the majority of the world was unaware of these unique farmhouse brewing traditions. They’ve historically been performed far from the limelight by small-scale brewers who simply brew the way they’ve always known. Thanks to some vigilant bloggers and researchers, though, the brewers of these ales are finally getting their due. For more on sahti and farmhouse brewing in Finland, Norway, and the Baltics, visitBrewing Nordic and Larsblog.

Jereme Zimmerman is a traditional brewing revivalist, homesteader, and speaker at nationwide natural living events, including Mother Earth News Fairs. He lives in Kentucky with his wife and daughters.

Inspiration for edible alchemy.