Sunday, June 1, 2014

Sam Adams' Sahti

Sahti.  For many a craft beer aficionado, it is a Norse legend.  A beer that one may have heard about, but has never seen on the shelves of the local beer store.  Yet, Michael Jackson -- the legendary beer writer -- has described the Sahti as "the only primitive beer to survive in Western Europe."   According to Brewing Techniques, the brewing process traveled from Western Europe to Finland and was in full swing by the 1400s, when the territory was part of the Kingdom of Sweden.

As Brewing Techniques further explains, Finland served as Sweden's strategic entrenchment against its rival during the 1400s and 1500s, which was Russia.  Sweden built castles, around which towns developed in localities of strategic importance. These towns were separated by quite a distance, which led to the building of a network of inns and royal estates.  These inns provided board and lodging for ordinary travelers, whereas the royal estates served those in royal service. Each inn and estate brewed its own beer on the premises, while the royal estates served as model farms for the peasantry.  This network provided the created the foundation for peasants to learn the craft of brewing beer.

Finnish peasants began to brew Sahti in the 1500s and the Sahti developed varying characteristics depending upon the part of Finland where it was being brewed. Despite its regional variations, the one thing that defines a Sahti is the use of juniper.  As Michael Jackson notes, the twigs from a juniper bush are used in the filter bed of the bottom of the lauter tun and are also infused in the brewing water.  Juniper berries are used in place of or alongside with hops. Today, many Finns still brew the beer, using the same equpment as their brewers in the past, namely, woodfire-heated kettles and saunas for mash tuns.  The result is that one could taste a beer today just as it looked and tasted back in the 1500s. 

I tried a Sahti once as part of a beer tasting hosted by Garrett Oliver and the National Geographic.  The theme of the tasting was Scandanavian beers.  Since that time, I have looked everywhere to find a Finnish Sahti.  To date, I have been unsuccessful.  However, American brewers have begun to brew this rather unique style of beer.  Dogfish Head has brewed a Sah'tea, which is a cross between the Sahti and Chai tea.  Although I have thought about reviewing that beer, I wanted to have my first Sahti review focus on a traditional Sahti.  I eventually found a beer brewed by Sam Adams that represents an effort to brew such a beer.  The beer was the Norse Legend.

Sam Adams brews the Norse Legend with a 2 Row Pale Malt blend, rye, special B and aromatic malts, along with Hallertau Mittelfrueh hops.  The brewers also use juniper berries during the brewing process and age the beer on those berries as well. 

The Norse Legend pours a reddish brown color, this a relatively thin foam that recedes gradually as the beer sits in the glass.  Given that the central characteristic of a Sahti is the use of juniper berries, those berries are featured prominently in both the aroma and taste of the beer.  The Sam Adams brewers use of the various malts add differing layers of bread and biscuit tones to both the aroma and the taste.  This work leads to Sam Adams' effort to resemble a more traditional Sahti.  (According to what I read, traditional Sahti's are not brewed with hops.)  For what I could find in the Sahti style, this was a very good beer.

I had hoped to pair this Norse Legend with a dinner featuring Finnish cuisine, but the dinner never materialized.  (As a result, the beer sat on our beer shelves for a while.) Nevertheless, the beer still exhibited the aromas and tastes that one would expect from a Sahti beer.  One does not have to prepare a Finnish dinner to enjoy the beer, as the brewers suggest that it would pair well with Scallops Eschabesh, Irish Red Brined Pork Chops and pizza.

Sam Adams is not currently brewing this beer.  If they start again, it is definitely worth a purchase for beer connoisseurs like myself, who struggle to find beers of very specific styles.  


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