“There are a lot of beers that were made on farms or in homes in different parts of the world that are under our radar here in the United States. Saisons and bière de gardes are ones we know the most about but we know comparably little about other styles like Keptinis or Stjordalsøl or Sahti.” says brewer Marika Josephson.
She’s the co-owner at Scratch Brewing Company, a true farmhouse brewery in Ava, Illinois. At Scratch, all of the ingredients are sourced from as close to the farm as possible. Traditional sahti has a lot of quirks that makes it tough to tackle as a modern style, but Josephson was inspired to brew it because of her ancestry.
“I’m part Finnish by descent so I was researching my cultural heritage when I ran into sahti. I’m also part Norwegian and part Swedish. So, I’ve been drawn in general to historical Scandinavian brewing styles and techniques,” she says.
Making Sahti in Southern Illinois
Because of this research, she’s quick to note that Scratch Sahti is not 100% authentic sahti. Instead it’s a southern Illinois take on the style.
“Traditional sahti is a raw beer served very young. The wort isn’t boiled. And it is often served before it has finished fermenting to keep the beer from turning sour,” she says.
However, Scratch Sahti is boiled. It is also bottled conditioned so it is fully carbonated, unlike traditional Finnish versions which are served still. Josephson also does her best to source grains that mimic the flavors of the dark rye used in classic versions of Sahti. To do this she works with the closest “micro-maltster” to the brewery, Sugar Creek Malt. All of the grains used for brewing at Scratch come from this small malters in Lebanon, Indiana.
Authentic sahti is made with juniper branches. Josephson mimics this flavor using local sources, “We use Eastern Red Cedar–which is a type of juniper that grows here–but not the same juniper that would be used in Finland. We wanted to create something that was unique to our place and our palates.”
That juniper used in the sahti doesn’t come to the brewery in pre-sealed ingredient bags, instead it is foraged right on the Scratch brewery grounds.
“Normally the day before a brew day, Aaron will harvest branches from a tree on our property so we’ll have them ready for the mash in the morning. If we’re using them entirely as the filter, we’ll weave them into a frame that rests on the bottom of the mash tun so that we can run water into the mash tun first thing in the morning.”
What does this Sahti Taste Like?
“You might think of it as Porter-like with a dose of spice from the rye and orange peel and pine aromas from the juniper,” says Josephson.
It is worth noting that a well-made sahti will not be sour. At Scratch, the sahti is hopped to 20ish IBU to prevent souring and bacterial infection, another factor that separates it from many traditional sahtis which are not hoped.
Being thoughtful about building a complex palate is important to Josephson, “Our beer is a dark and malty beer with a good dose of chocolate malt and rye, but the grains do change a bit from season to season depending on what we have available in the brewhouse.”
She adds that juniper is used in stages throughout the brew day including in the mash, “often, though not always, used entirely as the mash filter,” in the sparge; and at the beginning and end of the boil. She adds, “Each addition is moderate so that in the end we create a layered infusion, rather than a juniper bomb that’s all aroma but no backbone.”
Scratch has a special house culture of yeast, but that doesn’t play a huge role in their sahti. “A few years ago we made the switch to brewing almost entirely with our house culture and we brewed a couple versions of sahti with that as well. We’ve generally used an average-attenuating yeast but the real star of our beer is the malt and juniper so the yeast has been a bit secondary for our version.”
If You’re Coming to Scratch Sahti as an IPA Drinker
Josephson says, “There’s a strong link between the aroma of hops and juniper. We produce very few IPAs at Scratch but we notice that IPA drinkers always gravitate to our juniper beers because the resinous, piney flavors are so similar.”
When specifically referencing her sahti in the eyes of an IPA fan, she says, “An IPA drinker might liken our version to a black IPA with smooth dark malt character and a piney finish.”
She also ties it all back to Finland saying that if you visit the area as an IPA drinker, “A traditional sahti would probably blow their minds. We very rarely consume “raw,” un-boiled beer in the United States and virtually never drink it still.”
If You’re Coming to Scratch Sahti as a Stout Drinker
Stout lovers should seek out a Sahti as a first step into exploring farmhouse ales. Sahtis showcase complex malt flavors which often have even more depth than other malt-forward styles. This rich malt flavor comes from practices like skipping the boil and rustic malting methods, which leave behind more character.
But even in a shelf-stable version like the one made at Scratch, Josephson still likens the flavor profile to a porter with interesting flavor contributions from juniper branches.
More About Scratch Brewing Company
It’s hard to land on a definition of a farmhouse brewery, especially with modern tools and ingredient purveyors readily available to deliver to most any location. Josephson and her co-founder Aaron Kleidon have thoughtfully built a brewery that doesn’t need defining but instantly feels like a farmhouse brewery.
“There’s a romantic side to farmhouse beers and I think most people picture a rural brewery making beer with local ingredients, or ingredients directly from their farm. We’ve tried to keep that spirit at Scratch,” says Josephson.
She adds that “When I think about the history of beers connected to farms, I think of mixed culture fermentation, working with ingredients that were available to the brewer in their physical location.” That is why the team at Scratch works with solely Sugar Creek Malt and all of their hops are grown in their home state of Illinois. They won’t use an ingredient that can’t grow in the local area. Josephson says you’ll never find a pineapple in a Scratch-brewed beer.
The choice of yeast deepens the connection between the brewery and the land it sits on. It is a wild culture cultivated onsite. This native yeast is used in almost all of the beers made at Scratch. It is a mixed culture of yeast and bacteria (mostly saccharomyces and lactobacillus) leaving most of their beers to have a house flavor of “a mix of classic Saison fermentation and often a hint of acidity.”
All of this adds to a question the team at Scratch constantly asks themselves, “What do the woods of Southern Illinois smell and taste like? How can we capture that in beer?”
But part of brewing beer that is “trying to express a sense of place” is also about supporting that place. Josephson and the rest of the Scratch team are part of the local community (just as the farmhouse brewers of historic Scandinavia were) and use their purchasing power to support the businesses of their area.
“We employ a farmer full-time on our staff. And we commission steins, posters, and t-shirts from local artists. We hope commitments from businesses like ours will help to bolster the larger community’s economy,” she says.
To Josephson these aspects of the brewery come together under a common mission: “An ethos to keep the ‘farm’ in ‘farmhouse’ beer. We think that’s important.”