Beer culture

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Beer culture
In the national inventory
Location Suomi
Tags beer, sahti, brewing

Practitioners and people who know the tradition well

Teerenpeli in Lahti. Photos: Finland’s Beer Society.

Beer culture is the culinary culture of several population strata. The old tradition is maintained by the master brewers of sahti, who still have this skill. In some parts of Finland, sahti is still being brewed for annual festival days and family occasions, weddings in particular. Nowadays, sahti is mainly made in Häme, Pirkanmaa, northern Satakunta and parts of Uusimaa and Central Finland. Beer culture is also upheld by commercial breweries, both big and small. In recent years, an increasing number of microbreweries have been founded in Finland, and these have provided the public with a significant boost in their beer-related know-how. The number of Finnish microbreweries is currently 90. The commercial operators have formed two organisations: the Federation of the Brewing and Soft Drinks Industry and the Finnish Microbreweries' Association. National associations founded by amateurs and consumers have a special role in upholding the beer culture. There are approximately 50 of these associations in Finland. Finland’s Beer Society (Suomen Olutseura ry), the Beer Association (Olutliitto) and the Finnish Sahti Association (Suomen sahtiseura ry) are among the most notable operators.

The thousands of home-brewers are also among the strong practitioners of the tradition, and in the last few decades their skills have become vastly improved, thanks to the eased access to the equipment needed in the brewing process and their better quality. Most of the founders of Finnish microbreweries have come from amongst these beer enthusiasts. Thanks to the dozens of microbreweries, the range of flavours has expanded exponentially and consumers’ understanding of the beer culture has significantly improved.

Practising of the tradition

The Great Beers – Small Breweries festival in Tampere.

The traditions of beer making and beer culture are upheld by brewing sahti and beer. Sahti is a so-called original beer, which used to be made solely at home. Brewing takes four ingredients: water, malted barley, hops and yeast. Malted wheat and rye may also be used. The malt is mashed, converting its starch into sugars underneath hot water so that the yeast can utilise the sugars to produce alcohol and carbon dioxide. The sugary liquid called wort, created by the mashing is boiled, and the desired amount of hops is added to it. Once the wort has cooled down, the yeast is added, which begins the fermentation process. After the fermentation, the beer is bottled and priming sugar is added to each bottle. Sahti’s ingredients are the same as beer’s, with the exception of the yeast, which is not brewer’s yeast but ordinary baker’s yeast, and only a small amount of hops is used, if any. When brewing sahti, the liquid is strained through a special type of straw bale at various stages of the brewing process. Juniper berries and branches are added to the filtering straw to give sahti its typical juniper flavour.

The Great Beers – Small Breweries festival in Tampere.

In Finland, beer is part of a wide variety of occasions. It is drunk with friends, at a summer picnic, with meals and when having a sauna – something very typical in Finland. ‘Having a sauna beer’ is a classic expression. No strict customs are associated with beer drinking, although special tasting sessions will obviously follow their own traditions. The big festivities during the calendar year create an increase in beer consumption but also in the choice of higher quality labels. Sahti is still being brewed in the countryside, in particular for weddings.

The background and history of the tradition

Sahti and beer brewing have a long history in Finland. The legends of how beer was first created are part of our national epic, Kalevala. People had discovered hops, and there was water in the well and barley in the fields. The only additional thing that was needed was the knowledge of how to combine these. ‘Now hop called out from the tree, barley spoke from the field-top, water from Kaleva’s well: When shall we get together, at what time meet each other? Life alone is dull; twosomes, threesomes are nicer.’ The fermentation begins once the bee has brought honey to Osmotar the Beer-Smith and Kapo the Brewer of Drink. Kalevala describes beer as follows: ‘A good drink for the well-bred: it put smiles on women’s lips, me in good spirits, the well-bred making merry, but the mad leaping about.’

The sahti-making skills preserved in Finland have significant value, even on a global level. Sahti is one of the few ‘original beers’. Experts believe it is ‘the missing link between Mesopotamia and the modern day in beer-making history’ and that a ‘pint of sahti is a pint of anthropology’. Finnish beer has been a well-known export product since the 16th century when it was held in high regard and imported to Stockholm, including the royal court. Through the ages, beer brewing has also been a normal part of everyday chores, although the practice began to dwindle at the start of the 20th century. Industrial brewing began in the 19th century in Finland, when beer was even seen as a temperate alternative to the home distillation that had increased to harmful levels. Before prohibition (1919–1932), beer brewing had already become commercialised, and beer in Finland was being brewed by approximately 90 large and medium-sized breweries. Prohibition ruined Finnish beer making for a long time, and only a few large breweries remained during the second half of the 20th century. In the 1990s, however, microbreweries that had gained popularity elsewhere were introduced to Finland, as well. As a result, microbreweries and also beer associations began appearing. Currently, the number of microbreweries is at the same level as it was before Prohibition.

In 2002, sahti was granted the EU food designation Traditional Speciality Guaranteed (TSG), meaning its name is protected similarly to another original beer, the Belgian lambic. This protection can be granted to regionally unique and inimitable European products.

Beer festivals are a big part of the beer culture.

Beer has provided a good counterbalance to liquor consumption. However, concerns were raised about the effects that an increase in beer consumption would have on public health when in 1969 medium-strength beer was allowed to be sold in grocery shops. The total amount of alcohol consumed did increase, but in the 2010s the numbers have began to decrease again. Drinking habits are changing significantly in other ways, as well. The popularity of alcoholic drinks with a lower alcohol content, such as beer and wine, is constantly decreasing the amount of liquor consumption. A transition towards selective beer drinking is also becoming a trend. More and more consumers prefer to drink specialty beers and microbrewery products rather than consume bulk-produced beers.

The transmission of the tradition

The sahti and beer brewing tradition is being passed on from generation to generation by enthusiastic amateur brewers. People from over 50 towns have taken part in the national sahti competitions. Finland’s Beer Society and the Beer Association, as well as roughly 40 local associations operating within these, have a key role in distributing beer-related know-how. These associations organise beer nights, beer trips and beer tastings, which form the core of the beer tradition’s transmission. The Finnish Sahti Association arranges sahti-brewing courses, national-level sahti competitions and sahti tastings. In addition, it offers training in beer making for hobbyists. Larger practitioners of the beer tradition include beer festivals, the most significant of which are the Great Beers – Small Breweries festivals held at several locations, and the Helsinki Beer Festival and BeerExpo Finland held in Helsinki.

The OlutPosti magazine published by Finland’s Beer Society is the only Finnish publication specialising in beer and is therefore an important channel for distributing beer-related information. A large number of websites with information, ratings and discussion groups on beer maintained by active hobbyists have also sprung up.

The future of the tradition

Safeguarding the beer culture is vital, both for everyday and celebration customs in Finland and Finnish cuisine. This requires participation from breweries, home-brewers, people skilled in making sahti, national beer associations, local beer associations, beer bloggers and informed consumers, as well as media visibility, cooperation with authorities and support from the state.

Interest in microbreweries has also encouraged the larger commercial operators to expand their range of specialty beers. Home brewing is once again gaining popularity, and 6–10 new microbreweries have been founded every year since 2014. The number of beer rating websites is on the rise, and with mobile applications consumers can quickly share information about brands, restaurants and their personal preferences. Sahti courses are being held around the country. Finland’s centennial, Finland100, introduced several theme beers to the market. The 500th anniversary of the Reformation was also celebrated in 2017. This increased the amount of interest in Martin Luther as a great beer lover and led to a number of ‘Reformation beers’ and related events in Finland, as well. The Finnish beer tradition is reaching ever further through exports around the world. Sahti has regained popularity in North America, particularly amongst the Finnish American population. The ‘beer bridge’ between Finland and Estonia entails sharing experiences among active beer enthusiasts in the form of a joint beer association.

Possible threats to the tradition include the reformation of alcohol legislation and the general attitude towards alcohol policies. It is unclear which direction the legislation is heading in regarding microbreweries and restaurants selling their wares to be consumed outside of their premises, the strength of beers sold in grocery shops and the taxation of the brewery industry.

The community/communities behind this submission

Suomen Olutseura ry

Olutliitto

Suomen sahtiseura ry

OlutPosti-lehden toimituskunta

Bibliography and links to external sources of information

Panimoliitto

Pienpanimoliitto

Olutliitto

Sahtiverkko - Sahdista ja sahtiseuroista

OlutPOSTI

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