Homebrew Recipe: Ghost of Karelia Sahti

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Illustration by David Witt, DWITT All-Purpose Illustrations

This recipe appears in Michael Dawson’s book, “Mashmaker: A Citizen-Brewer’s Guide to Making Great Beer at Home.” Learn more at mashmakerbook.com.


“Today sahti is, at its best, a festive farm brew served at rural feasts. More technically, sahti is a very potent, astoundingly full-bodied and turbid top-fermenting beer.” —Ilkka Sysila, Finnish brewer and beer author

Happy holidays, citizens! This year, we’re going to gift each other with a very potent, astoundingly full-bodied and turbid top-fermented beer.

Native to Finland, the roots of sahti go back to the Middle Ages, and traditional producers still brew it in much the same way as they did 500 years ago. It is a strong, barleywine-grade ale flavored with juniper and brewed for village festivals and special occasions. It is served young in all its hazy, boozy, effervescent glory.

Going by the numbers

Lumbering in with an original gravity of 1.076–1.120, sahti boasts an alcohol content between 7–11% ABV. The color runs from very pale straw 4 SRM to deep amber 22 SRM. Hop bitterness is extremely low relative to the heft of this beer, to the tune of just 7–15 IBU. The use of juniper takes up some of this slack (more on that below).

Since it is consumed as fresh as possible, sahti is served at low CO2 levels—almost still with a bit of residual gas from fermentation, or very lightly carbonated—which further enhances the big, slick texture of this beer.

What makes it tick

Sahti is a confluence of unique brewing processes and ingredients. Let’s break it down:

Sahti is brewed from a mix of malted and unmalted grains—primarily barley with a discernible (but not dominating) portion of rye; wheat may also be used. This rustic mash is lautered through a screen of fresh juniper boughs in a troughlike vessel called a kuurna, made from a tree trunk split lengthwise and hollowed out.

Sahti is sparsely hopped, usually with a token addition of homegrown hops scattered over the juniper lining the kuurna. The resiny sap extracted from the juniper in the mash intercedes in the name of balance, helping the slight hop load offset the fat malt character.

A brief boil following the mash is optional; some sahti brewers elect to skip a boil altogether, and the hot runoff from the mash is simply cooled in the fermenter before pitching yeast. The break material that is normally separated out by a 60–90 minute boil means that ludicrous amounts of body-building cereal proteins carry through to the glass, resulting in a worty, viscous density.

Finnish sahti is often fermented with bread yeast and exhibits a dominant banana ester from the fermentation. This aspect of sahti makes it highly reminiscent of weizenbocks. For U.S. homebrewers, a Bavarian hefeweizen strain is the best substitute; it will give us those pronounced banana aromatics and will cope better than baker’s yeast with a 10% ABV.

Sahti fermentation is a quick and vigorous affair: Sysila cites complete primary fermentation in as little as two days, with an additional week or so of secondary at cellar temperatures (approximately 55°F). Sahti is served within a week or two of brewing and consumed quickly, so there will be quite a bit of suspended yeast in the glass—again, much like a weizenbock.

So: lots of malt with a good dose of rye, flavored with juniper and a cursory nod to hops, fermented quickly with a banana-forward yeast strain to a high ABV and consumed fresh for a spritzy, turbid, warming, and malty special-event beer you could probably stand a fork in.

To lower the stakes of experimentation with such an idiosyncratic beer, this month’s recipe is formulated as a one-gallon brew-in-a-bag batch. For the adventurous and/or determinedly Finnish, scale up to bigger volumes as desired.

A recipe to try

Ghost of Karelia Sahti
One Gallon
Target OG: 1.090–1.100, Target IBU: 5–7

Shopping list:

Grain

• 2¼ pounds Weyermann Pils
• 1 pound Weyermann Dark Munich
• 8 ounces Weyermann Rye malt
• 4 ounces flaked wheat
• 2 ounces Weyermann Caramel Wheat

Hops

• ¼ ounce homegrown noble-type hops of approximately 3–5% alpha acid or ¼ ounce store-bought whole-flower Tettnang or Saaz

Flavorings

• ¼ ounce dried juniper berries (available at your local homebrew store)

Yeast

• One pack of your choice of Bavarian-style weizen yeast—I’m using Wyeast 3056 Bavarian Wheat Blend

Equipment

• A large mesh bag that can hold five pounds of grain

Next page: Key points and brewing method

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