When asked why beers like sahti aren’t commonly in the picture when people think of farmhouse styles he says, “Because in Finland it was traditionally brewed in sauna rather than a farmhouse, so most people consider it more of a Sauna Ale.” (The guys got jokes!) And the bear hanging out on the label of Off Color’s sahti looks like he enjoys a nice day at the spa.
“But seriously, Belgian beer culture is very marketable in the United States, at least much more so than Scandinavian beer culture. As a less common style, I think the general public tend to file it under a weird/specialty category of its own rather than a farmhouse ale.”
Reversing the tendency to brew and sell things that are easily marketable is what Off Color Brewing, with two locations in Chicago, was founded on, “Trying to educate people on beer styles they are not used to or maybe never even heard of was part of the goal of Off Color. Then our challenge as brewers is to make these styles in an approachable way to keep curious consumers coming back to try new things.”
Inspired By Traditional Sahti
Bleitner says he was inspired by iconic beer writer Michael Jackson’s writing on Sahti, where he covered traditional methods for making the Finnish farmhouse ale like using a kuurna (a trough made from a hollowed out log) that was used to separate the spent grains from the wort. To replicate this impact from raw wood interacting with hot wort, Off Color’s sahti is boiled with barrel staves.
“Our other philosophy in brewing farmhouse ales is adapting a (semi) modern commercial brewery and either handicap it by not using all the tools available to you (like glycol jacketed stainless steel tanks which are turned off when we brew our flagship saison) or pulling inspiration from historical brewing equipment.”
Bleitner adds, “We would use a kuurna if we had one, but we don’t.”
Sahti is also traditionally fermented with baker’s yeast which throws off many of the same fermentation flavors as a German ale yeast (think banana, bubblegum, clove). Bare Bear uses a saison yeast instead of a bread yeast because the brewers like the outcome better.
“Part of what makes farmhouse ale so interesting is the variety of flavors you get from yeast metabolism,” says Bleitner, so fermentation profile is important even if it doesn’t match perfectly with the Finnish brewing tradition. In this case saison yeast adds peppery spice notes to the beer which complements bright juniper and zesty rye.
He adds that historic farmhouse ale brewers would have been limited in ingredient selection by what was available on the farm, leaving the yeast profile as the differentiating factor. “Generally farmhouse ales don’t have many exotic ingredients so you have your fermentation right at the forefront. This is especially true when brewing ales that use more than one yeast (or bacteria).”
What does Off Color Brewing’s Bare Bear Sahti taste like?
Bleitner describes his sahti as, “Bare Bear is all about the spice. Dark rye and rye flakes contribute a signature spicy zest, while the saison yeast adds a black peppery phenolic character. Spice should always be balanced. We do so by adding a candy-like malt backbone, juniper berries to add a piney/gin note, and the tannins from the boiled barrel staves contribute to the extremely dry finish.”
If You’re Coming to Bare Bear Sahti as an IPA Drinker
Bleitner’s greeting to IPA drinkers looking to try sahti: “Welcome to craft beer not hiding behind hops!”
Though they are generally malt focused and feature the brightness and woodiness of juniper he adds, “Sahti, as a style, has such a wide range it would have to be hand sold [and explained to customers.”
Bare Bear is now available in cans which ups the approachability factor for people that are new to the style.
His sahti definitely fits into the general flavor profile of a sahti while bumping up certain aspects of the flavor profile. “With Bare Bear be prepared more wine-like qualities (tannins and bone dry finish) as well as background flavors associated with gin and rye.” Maybe it’s best to liken sahti to a cocktail rather than a craft beer before taking a first sip.
“But probably best to keep the IPA focused consumers away from traditional sahti (served flat out of an old milk jug).”
More About Off Color Brewing
Off Color admits that saisons are “kinda like, our thing” and uses a bunch of traditional techniques to make these farmhouse style ales including free rise fermentation, adding Brettanomyces claussenii, and finishing beers in calvados (French apple brandy) foeders.
“Farmhouse brewing is yeast centric, so learning the intricacies of how each yeast strain operates and how it responds to certain conditions is critical,” says Bleitner.
Off Color doesn’t focus on using one signature house strain but instead has a handful of yeast strains and bacteria used to create the specific flavor of different beer styles.
“Depending on the yeast (or mix of yeasts) and fermentation profile flavors, farmhouse ales can range from complex esters fruitiness and phenolic spiciness to more funky or acidic characteristics from mixed cultures not fermented exclusively with common brewers yeast,” he adds.
Not all of the beers made at Off Color are necessarily “farmhouse” style but even those that are not are slightly off target of today’s hazy, milkshakey, crispy trends. They incorporate quirky ingredients like kola nuts and hybrid techniques like bourbon barrel lagering.
If you try any of their farmhouse ales (or any of their beers at all really!) tag #trythisfarmhouse to share what you thought!