How To Brew Sahti

by Steve Thanos Updated on August 26, 2021 Historical Beer Brewing Recipes

Sahti dates back to 1366. There was a mention of consuming beer during the burial. In 1930, a Viking ship that had sunk was discovered off the coast of Norway.

The ship contained wooden barrels that were similar to those designed in the 9th century. It was thought that the barrels contained Sahti.

This seems to parallel the story of Sahti residue being found on a Viking burial ship in Oseburg, Norway in 1904. 

Women Brewmasters

Brewing in Finland was very much part of domestic life in Europe. Like most governments, the Finnish government placed brewing restrictions on brewing Sahti. This played a large factor in the survival of Sahti.

Like many other cultures, the brewing in Finland was central and an important role for many Finnish women. These women paved the way to brewing Sahti and allowed for it to be the everyday beer that was brewed in Finland. 

Juniper

Sahtis were usually rustic beer creations that were brewed with whatever was available on the farm. This usually consisted of barley, rye and oats. Juniper, yarrow, bog myrtie, and caraway and other herbs were often used to provide flavor for the beer. 

Hops would become a minor ingredient in the 14th century, as this spread across Europe at this time. Many of the herbs that were once used in brewing a Sahti were no longer used. It is unknown if these herbs were not used or if there was another reason. However, juniper remained for some unknown reason. 

Traditionally, Sahtis were brewed with minimal, if any at all, boil. This may be the justifiable reason for hops not being used.

Hot stones were used through multiple temperature steps before it was filtered through a bed of straw and juniper branches. A small amount of hops were added either during the mash or as part of the filter bed. 

Style Profile for Sahti

Appearance

Sahtis are off yellow to dark brown with many being in a medium amber color. Usually unfiltered, so the beer is cloudy. Low carbonation will lead to little head to form in the beer. 

Aroma

The aroma is sweet and has a grainy malt character. Also aromas of caramel and rye notes are present. Aroma of juniper should be noticeable, but remains low to medium.

Banana easters are pronounced and clove-like phenols will be slightly lower. Beer should not be sour in the nose and may have a light alcohol spiciness.  

Flavor

The yeast contributes banana and clove flavors. Malt will be grainy, with rye qualities and some caramel notes. Low bitterness and no hop flavor or aroma.

The juniper branches/berries can add some piney notes and the berries may contribute some gin-like qualities. 

Mouthfeel

Warming qualities are evident in this beer due to the high alcohol and young age. Low carbonation should be present. Body will be weighted with protein, with a thick tacky mouthfeel. 

Tips for Brewing your own Sahti

Grain

The grist for this style can vary quite a bit. Barley usually makes up the base malt. Other grains that could be included include rye, oats, wheat, and possibly some kilned malts. 80-90 percent of the grist is either pale malt or Pilsner malt.

Munich malt usually finds its way into the grist. Usually Munich malt makes up 10-20 percent. The rye malt is usually 5-10 percent, but can be as much as 40 percent.

Homebrewers may want to experiment a little and add specialty malts such as crystal, biscuit, honey, crystal rye, Midnight wheat, and even smoked malt. Play around with it and have fun with the different variations.  

Hops

Sahits usually do not contain much in terms of hops. With that said, the few decent varieties for this style usually center around German Noble hops or English hops.

Those hops include: Saaz, Terrnang, Hallertauer Mittelfrüh, Fuggle, East Kent Goldings, and Challenger. 

Juniper 

The juniper that you use for this beer must be safe for consumption. Juniper can be purchased as co-ops, organic food outlets, and many herb shops.

Sometimes even some homebrew shops may even carry it. Everyone’s trusty Amazon can also be used to procure your own stash of juniper. 

Yeast

The yeast should be a Weizen variety. The Weizen yeast provides the distinctive banana esters and the clove phenols that you are looking for with this style.

White Labs Hefeweizen yeast WLP300, Wyeast 2206 Bavarian Lager is also a choice that can be used. Finnish baker’s yeast has a similar profile as Bavarian weizen yeast. 

Sahti By the Numbers

  • Color Range: 4 – 22 SRM
  • Original Gravity: 1.076 – 1.120 OG
  • Final Gravity: 1.016 – 1.020 FG
  • IBU Range: 7 – 15
  • ABV Range: 7.0 – 11.0% 

Martin Keen’s Sahti Recipe

Grain

  • 70%              11lb 4oz             Pilsner Malt
  • 20%              3lb  4oz              Munich Malt
  • 10%              3lb  4oz              Rye Malt

Hops

  • 6 oz         Juniper Berries  – Boil – 60 min

Yeast

  • 1.0 pkg   ESPE Kveik (Omega #OYL 090)

My name’s Martin Keen, and I’m Trent Musho from the Bru Sho, and together we’re taking on the curious beer style of Sahti. While I get ready for brew day, Trent, over to you to explain what this beer style is all about.

Sahti is a farmhouse style beer that hails from Finland and has a brewing tradition dating back about 500 years, if not longer. Typically brewed for festivities like weddings, this ale is a Rite of passage for a lot of Finnish home brewers and a few breweries around Finland.

But Sahti has never really picked up international fame. It may be because of its short shelf life. Maybe it’s the unique brewing techniques, or maybe it’s because of its distinctive ingredients. Whatever it is, the information about this brew is pretty sparse.

I struggled to even find a commercial example here in Los Angeles. Dogfish Head has made a version of this before, but in order to learn more about the style, I had to do some deep diving to find out more about this mysterious beverage. One of the reasons the information on the style is a bit cloudy is because there’s a lot of variations to how it is traditionally brewed.

And it really depends on who you ask or where you read about it. Most of the recipes for the style were passed down in families. So every recipe is a little different, but in general, there are four key components that make up a Sahti.

First, it primarily consists of Pilsner or pale malt with a portion of the grain bill being rye, usually a caramel rye, and this can be anywhere from 50 to 40% of the total grist.

Second, one of the key flavor impacts is the use of Juniper instead of hops, usually branches of the common Juniper, but berries are also used as well. Hops are sometimes used, but not as common.

Third is the lack of boil when making the beer, it goes straight from the mash to the fermentor. And lastly, the use of bakers yeast to fermat gives it an estery and slightly acidic finish.

The traditional way to brew Sahti is by using a Kuurna. This is a trowel shaped mash tun that has Juniper branches laid across the bottom, followed by grains and water.

The wort is heated by placing scolding hot rocks in the mash that caramelize the wort and add flavor as well as raise the temperature for starch conversion.

And then the wort is strictly moved into the fermenter after mashing. Fermentation is then achieved by adding a finished baker yeast or whatever house strain of yeast the family keeps to brew. The resulting beer is a thick piny-ale with notes of caramel and pronounced banana esters. And it’s usually quite strong anywhere from 7 – 11%.

I don’t think Martin has a giant tree to knock down and build a Kuurna. So I think we’re going to need to get a little more creative and put a modern twist on this brew. For the grain bill, we’re not going to stray too far from the recommendations.

The majority of the grains used will be Pilsner 70%. And 20% Munich malt for some added bready complexity. Lastly, we’ll be adding about 10% of rye to round out the malts. And since it’s not prime Juniper season, we’ll just be adding in Juniper berries.

But if you have the branches go for that, just keep in mind that some varieties of Juniper are actually poisonous. So stick with the common Juniper to be safe. And if you’re unsure, just leave it out altogether.

Lastly, we’ll also be straying from tradition with yeast. In order to have more predictable fermentation, we’re using a farmhouse ale yeast called Kveik.

Specifically SP which is a Nordic farmhouse yeast. The hope is that this farmhouse ale yeast will bring fruity esters, but a fairly clean fermentation profile to not get in the way of the juniper character.

But if you’re looking to keep things more traditional than go for baker yeast instead, so that should be everything we need to get started. Now let’s brew.

So let’s get brewing this one. The first thing I heat up the strike water. This is going to be a long mash and I’m adopting a step mash here to take advantage of conversion through multiple temperature ranges.

First mash rest is 140 Fahrenheit, so I’ve heated my water to 147. To that I’m adding some water salts to balance my filtered tap water. Um, adding two grams of gypsum, three grams of Epsom salt and five grams of calcium chloride.

This gives my tap water a nice balanced profile.

Here’s what I’m shooting for. I’m also adding five milliliters of lactic acid to balance my pH. I’m looking for a pH of between 5.2 and 5.4. And I’ll check that in a moment.

So first things first it’s in with the Milled grain. I’m giving that a good stir with my giant whisk to make sure there are no lumps. If I remember I’ll periodically give the mash a quick stir through the mash rests.

Now to the mash I’m throwing in five grams of Juniper berries, Atlantic brew supply found some of these outback. I’m throwing these straight into the mash basket. This really seems like a tiny addition that would make minimal difference, but we’ll see.

Juniper branches would be a first choice for the style. And if you can find them throw in about 10 grams of branches with the berries attached.

pH looks good, 5.4. So I’ll not make any further adjustments.

One hour later it’s time to bump up the temperature to 158 Fahrenheit. This is really easy on my claw hammer system might just set a new temperature and let the heating elements cycle on and off to get to the temp.

I’m holding here for 50 minutes. Then I bump up to 176 Fahrenheit for 10 minutes and that’s it. At the end of the two hours, I pull the grain basket out. This is as hot as the worth is ever going to get.

Sahti is a raw ale. There’s no boil. We want to conserve that Juniper character as much as we can. I’m also not adding any hops. It’s just straight to cool down. This is an absolute first for me. And quite honestly, it feels really weird.

I’ve hooked up my plate to chiller and I’m bringing down the temperature to 85 Fahrenheit, 176 to 85 is not a whole lot so this doesn’t take long at all. I take a gravity reading on a mat, 1.069. I transferred into the fermentor and now it’s time to add the yeast.

I’m using Kviek Espe the Nordic farmhouse yeast with fruity esters, but a fairly clean fermentation profile to highlight the Juniper character. I seal up the fermenter and keep this between 85 Fahrenheit to 90 Fahrenheit.

Here at the beer will sit for a couple of weeks before I’ll cold crash it and send the bottle to Trent for the tasting.

So it’s tasting time and I have Trent here virtually to taste it with me. Good to see you, Martin.

We’re not doing this in person. I’m on the east coast and you’re on the west, but we have got, uh, both. We both have a beer from the brew day. I’ve sent one across to California. So I’m really curious to see how this thing has survived. [How to Ship Beer]

Is it still in one piece. It is it made it. Let me pop it open and see how it looks.

Yeah, yeah. Let’s see what it looks like. Still got some fizz. Oh, look at that. It’s still fuzzy. Beautiful. Yeah. It’s quite appealing isn’t it? In terms of color. Yeah.

Like a light orange hue kinda. Mine is quite cloudy. Yeah. Still. Mine’s a bit hazy too. That’s popular these days though.

That’s right. That’s right. I’m not sure that was intended, but we’ll, we’ll go with that. Okay. So, so first of all, then this is a beer brewed with no hops. So I don’t konw what the aroma is going to be like, right. Interesting. Let’s see what we think?

I’m just getting a lot of malt and I don’t know if it’s that rye initially, but I’m not getting any juniper character.

It doesn’t. No, I, I think, um, yeah, no boil and no hops and berries in there. I mean, it’s, it’s pretty weird. It’s pretty weird. So, okay. I guess we should, uh, I guess we should try this thing. I’m kind of nervous.

I know I’m not sure what we’re getting ourselves in for here. Cheers. Wow. Wow. That’s interesting. Yeah.

Yeah. There is a bit of like, um, bitterness, like it isn’t like fully sweet. There’s like something there. I don’t know if it’s the Juniper or what, but it kind of bounces it out a little bit. Yeah.

So I was expecting, because there were no bittering hops that this is going to be like drinking wort. Um, but no, it’s, it does actually have a little bit of, yeah. Is it bitterness the, from the Juniper berries something, but it doesn’t make it sort of cloyingly sweet. Yeah.

But it does. It does have that. There is a bit of sweetness. Like, I mean, the sweetness is there. It’s not hiding, which is interesting. And it’s, it’s got like a bit of a thicker mouthfeel, I think, because of it, which I think the carbonation is cutting through, but I don’t know, you know, it’s not something I don’t think I can have a bunch of pints of, but by itself it’s pretty interesting.

Completely agreed. Very, very sort of heavy mouthfeel because of the sweetness, but it just, in terms of flavor, can you sort of pick up on the, the Juniper taste?

I guess a little bit. It’s like, it’s a very light hint. It’s almost like an herbal thing on the end. I feel like I get, yeah. I think maybe you could go with more next time. Next time you brew this, you could go throw a lot of Juniper in.

Right. It was a vanishingly small amount of Juniper that, that went into this thing to the extent where, you know, you put it in and say, this can’t possibly make any difference. Yeah. So yeah, I think you probably could up it a little bit, but that said, I, I feel like, have we not added it, this will be a very different beer. Yeah.

Well, you know, I’m pleasantly surprised. We have a product was actually drinkable and somewhat enjoyable. Thanks so much for all of your work on helping me with this one. Yeah.

I appreciate it. I had a lot of fun making this one. It was, it was a fun experiment.

It definitely was. And look, if you’ve not checked out the Bru Sho, please go give it a look. There’s a link in the description. And also on the end card here, what sort of stuff you got coming up on the channel?

Well, I’m always looking to do some odd experimentation outside of beer. So I have right now, I’ve got some, I’m working on Saki, I’m working on hard kombucha. Um, and then, you know, I got all kinds of other beers that I’m working on. So lots in the pipe works.

Well for now. Thank you so much for brewing this beer with me and uh, and enjoying it across the country together. Yeah.

So cheers. Cheers.

Steve Thanos: Former President of my homebrew club, Plainfield Ale and Lager Enthusiasts (PALE) in the western suburbs of Chicago, IL. I brew on my BIAB system with my incredibly patient and understanding wife, adorable 9 year old daughter, and 12 year old brew dog.