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 Finnish Sahti

This text is an excerpt from the special publication series Cervisia Fennica - Finland's Indigenous Beer Culture written by Peter Ovell and published by Perinteisen Oluen Seura - Finnish Society for Traditional Beers ry.

History of Finnish Sahti

2. History

Finland's national epic poem, the Kalevala, takes some 400 lines to cover the 'invention' of beer. This, at least, tells us that Finns have had some kind of indigenous beer culture for several hundred years, and possibly much longer. Indeed, through folklore traditions, archaeological finds and so on, the roots of Scandinavian beer culture have been traced back at least to the Viking Age (9th - 11th centuries). For example, Asplund (p. 25) notes that sahti barrels were found in the 1930s on a sunken Viking wreck off Norway. The design of the barrels was dated to the 9th century, when sahti may have been popularised in Finland and, to an extent, in parts of Sweden and Norway. Furthermore, Räsänen (1977: 70) reports that archaeological evidence shows that grain was already being malted in the Åland Islands around the late 10th century. It is possible that beer made at that time may not have included any rye, as the earliest evidence of rye cultivation in Finland points to the 12th century.

The probable origin of the term 'sahti' has been traced by linguists to the early German word saf, later saft ('fruit juice'), suggesting the word has its roots from as early as about 1000-500 BC, when the southern Finnish coastal areas were settled by Germanic tribes. Of course, this does not mean that sahti was being made in those times, but rather the word was adopted at some later stage as an appropriate name for 'the juice of the barley'. The true origin of the word sahti, however, is not known with any certainty.

Although there is no archaeological or written evidence to prove it, some kind of basic beer-making skills may even have been brought by the earliest Finns who, it seems, arrived from the east, probably from the area between the Volga and the Urals. They first cultivated the land in around 1500 BC Räsänen (pp. 149-151) notes that the techniques and equipment familiar to us today in making sahti were generally not widely known in Finland until after the 12th and 13th centuries, when the knowledge gradually spread from Germany to Sweden and then to Finland. The earliest known written references specifically to beer date back to 1366, when it was noted that much beer (sahti) was consumed on the occasion of the burial of Bishop Hemminki, and in the same year it was also reported that Bishop Torsten of Viipuri bequeathed a barrel of beer to a school in Turku. It is also of interest that later, in 1551, Agricola's Psalttari contained a list of the Finns' pagan gods, among whom was listed Pekko, God of Beer and guardian of the harvest.

The earliest known detailed account given of sahti brewing is the doctoral dissertation of Carl Hellenius, written in 1780 at the Åbo Academy on the subject of Finland's peasant brewing practices. Sahti also figured prominently in the doctoral dissertation of Michael Ticcander in 1792. Writing about the parish of Sysmä, he noted that its sahti was made using methods peculiar to that locality and was then stored in cool stone cellars, allowing it to keep for extended periods.

Jackson (pp. 7, 18) reminds us that the history of beer itself may even extend as far back as 10,000 years ago, and there is specific evidence of a fermented grain beverage having been drunk in Mesopotamia around 4000 BC, and later in Ancient Egypt. There is also evidence suggesting a fermented beverage of barley and oats being drunk as far north as the Hebrides in about 2000 BC. While other cereals have been used as supplements to barley, none have proved as suitable for use as the principal raw material in brewing beer. Hops, on the other hand, are a relative newcomer: as the main 'spice' in beer, the hop replaced herbs and berries across Europe only as recently as the 17th century.

In the Nordic countries it is probable that rye and oats were used to supplement barley for making early beerlike beverages, and juniper, bog myrtle and other plants such as Labrador tea, yarrow and caraway, even laurel leaves, were used in place of or alongside the hop. Occasionally, as was common elsewhere, local variations would arise, such as the popular addition of fresh raspberries in the Tammisaari area of southern Finland in the 18th century noted by Asplund (p. 25).

In spite of the harsh northern climate and short growing season, Finns did nevertheless also gain experience in cultivating their own hops. The use of hops spread to the Nordic countries as early as the 12th century (see Talve 1973: 98), although the earliest evidence of hop cultivation in Finland, in the Åland Islands, is from the 14th century. Thereafter, hops became widely used to impart flavour and preservative qualities to sahti, following the example of foreign beer makers. Its use became so widespread that by the 18th century hop bines were fairly common in Finland, assisted in 1734 by measures which sought to promote hop growing, though by the present century they had been replaced with imported higher-quality hops.

The indigenous Finnish sahti, however, has always featured juniper alongside the hop, the latter playing a relatively minor role. Juniper has also been used in brewing beer in Sweden and Norway, although a widespread brewing tradition akin to Finland's sahti never really developed in either country; in any event, it is the juniper berry that has generally been used in Norway and Sweden, in contrast to the Finnish tradition of using juniper twigs and branches, albeit with berries attached when in season.

As Räsänen (pp. 5, 30) explains, the tradition of brewing sahti became established over many centuries of unrestricted home-brewing rights; the rights of Finnish townsfolk to brew beer were restricted for only a short time in the 17th century and the rights of country folk (the vast majority of the population) to brew for their own needs remained completely unrestricted, that is until the prohibition years of 1919-1932, which affected everyone alike. By contrast, many countries in central and eastern Europe (e.g. Lithuania and Poland) imposed severe restrictions on brewing rights outside towns, resulting not only in a diminished brewing tradition but also the growth of town-based breweries.

Sahti brewing was thus permitted to flourish in the Finnish countryside, helped by the fact that barley and rye could be cultivated successfully, at least in the southern and central areas of the country. Finnish sahti was even exported abroad, for example to Uppsala in Sweden in the 16th century and also as far afield as Germany. Sahti taverns also became an accepted (or perhaps tolerated) institution in society during the 17th and 18th centuries. As Asplund (p. 25) points out, taverns were often run by clergymen, one such being a priest named Pauli who kept a tavern in Iitti during the 18th century.

In the 16th century, the practice of distilling spirits began to spread rapidly throughout Finland, having been introduced via trading links abroad and later through military escapades in Russia. Its impact on barley stocks and the general increase in drunkenness led to the imposition of restrictions on home distilling, as Mäntylä (1985) describes at length. These restrictive measures were introduced intermittently throughout the 18th century and again at the end of the 19th century when opposition to the abuse of cheap spirits became the driving force behind the rise of the Finnish temperance and workers' movements. This eventually led to the imposition of more draconian measures in the form of complete prohibition on the production, sale and consumption of alcohol, which lasted from 1919 until 1932 and applied to sahti as much as any other alcoholic beverage.

Prior to prohibition, however, the lack of any major restrictions on the brewing of sahti (presumably seen as 'the lesser evil'), as noted above, coupled with comparatively late urbanisation in Finland, meant that the country's beer culture, based essentially on home brewing in the countryside, was able to keep its traditions alive into the 20th century. This has continued in recent decades too, in spite of the period of prohibition and the rise of large-scale commercial beer production.

Peter Ovell /  14.12.2001

7.6.2023 12:54

Tekijänoikeus © 2001-2002 Perinteisen Oluen Seura ry.