The Session #100: Resurrecting Lost Beer Styles

The SessionThis first Friday of June 2015 marks the 100th edition of The Session. 100! That’s quite a milestone for having a group of bloggers (many of which have changed over the years, naturally) collaborate each month with their own take on a particular topic. And for number 100 we have a neat theme.

Reuben Gray of The Tale of the Ale has the honor of hosting this month, and he’s wanting us to think about Resurrecting Lost Beer Styles.

I wanted to do an interesting topic for the 100th Session and looking back over the other 99 topics, none have touched on lost or almost lost beer styles. There are many of them that have started to come back in to fashion since in the last 10 years due to the rise of craft beer around the world.

If you have a local beer style that died out and is starting to appear again then please let the world know. Not everyone will so just write about any that you have experienced. Some of the recent style resurrections I have come across in Ireland are Kentucky Common, Grodziskie, Gose and some others. Perhaps it’s a beer you have only come across in homebrew circles and is not even made commercially.

Here in Central Oregon, if you look past the various breweries dabbling in historical styles such as pre-Prohibition lagers, cream ale, Berliner Weisse, the occasional Gose, and so on, the one brewery that stands out in this regard is The Ale Apothecary. Brewmaster Paul Arney set out to bring an historical aspect of brewing into a modern sensibility, brewing mixed-fermentation ales in small batches, with nearly every step of the process (minus the boil in the brew kettle) conducted in wood—wooden mash tun (made from a barrel), open primary fermentation in wood, secondary fermentation and conditioning/aging in barrels. And one of his beers in particular is directly influenced by an historical style that he has brewed as authentically as anyone could ask for: Finnish Sahti.

(I will let others debate whether Sahti should count as a style that “died out” since it technically has been continuously brewed in Scandinavia, though my understanding is that those beers are mostly brewed by home and farmhouse breweries and today there are very few commercial examples available to us, at least here in the States.)

Sahti is an interesting beer in that it is largely flavored with juniper, not only with berries added at the end of the boil, but also in the use of juniper boughs layered on the bottom of the mash/lauter tun to aid as a grain filter; and even more notably, this tun was traditionally carved out of a log to form a wooden trough called a kuurna. Not uncommonly fermented with baker’s yeast, it’s a fairly rustic, regional beer.

Of the few commercial examples out there, I doubt many of the breweries have gone to any length to brew a Sahti as traditionally as Arney has at his Ale Apothecare—because he went so far as to craft his own kuurna:

Ale Apothecary kuurna

His interpretation of this style, which he calls Sahati, is described thusly:

SAHATI is our interpretation of traditional Finnish sahti. Starting with a 200-year old Engelmann spruce tree felled on brewery property, we created our own kuurna (an ancient Scandinavian lauter tun) to separate the wort from the grain during brewing. The bottom of the kuurna is layered with spruce branches; the needles act as a natural filter and impart resinous oils into the wort. The hollowed-out trunk of the tree also contributes spruce essence and structure from the raw wood. The beer is made of barley & rye malts along with a sparing addition of Goschie Farms Cascade hops and is brewed just a few times per year.
 SAHATI is in many ways the very definition of The Ale Apothecary, where complex flavors arrive from the very methods used for production…the result is the process impacts the flavor profile at least as much as the ingredients themselves.

This is my favorite Ale Apothecary beer, albeit one I’ve only had two or maybe three times because of it’s rarity. When (relatively) young it has an amazingly fresh and pungent spruce character that’s sweet and sugary with a resiny sap-like impression, but it’s all balanced with the wild yeasts and bacteria to yield layers of complexity really quite unlike any other beer I’ve had. Last weekend I split a two-year-old original bottle with Brian Yaeger, and it was much drier, with the spruce character subdued quite a bit. Still a fantastic pour.

Yes, Arney’s take on the style uses spruce instead of juniper, probably because he’s surrounded by it in his part of town (actually about 9 miles west of town, towards the mountains). I also like the “New World synergy” of using spruce in this context as spruce was also used in early American ales, so it fits. Despite that I strongly suspect it’s one of the most authentically-brewed American examples of a Sahti, at least being brewed commercially.

And he is, in fact, looking at expanding production of Sahati—which means chopping down and hollowing out a larger tree for a bigger kuurna. More recently the old kuurna was on display at the High Desert Museum‘s Brewing Culture exhibit (now closed). I can’t wait to try that next batch… whenever it comes out.