“This has been a truly fascinating project,” says Turnagain Brewing Company brewer/owner Ted Rosenzweig. “I mean, I really felt fortunate that I was pushed into it,” he says of a truly unique and difficult beer to produce that’s being released today at the brewery at 7920 King Street. By this weekend, bottled versions of SaunaBrau, a sahti, will show up exclusively at Brown Jug liquor store locations if the bottles don’t blow up.
“Nicole Pierce is the beer buyer at Brown Jug. She’s a friend of the brewery. She had us do a contract beer a while back,” says Rosenzweig. “BiscBrau was a spiced holiday ale in the spirit of Biscoff Speculoos cookies. It was a hit for them, did really well at the stores, and not long after that, she asked if we would mind doing another specialty beer. She said she’d been to a brewery in the upper Midwest and enjoyed this style of beer called sahti, and asked if we could give it a go.”
“I said yes, then I panicked,” says Rosenzweig.
“Sahti is of Finnish origin, and is like a paleo ancient style that predates the mash tun,” says Rosenzweig. Early versions date back to 1366, and some historians claim this is the world’s oldest beer style.
A mash tun is a central part of a modern brewhouse. It’s the vessel where most of the magic of brewing happens, or where brewing grains are soaked, where the grain’s starches are converted to sugars, and are extracted with the liquid to become the unfermented beer.
That’s a very brief encapsulation of what a mash tun does, but when sahti was common, instead of a mash tun, a kuurna was used, “which is a hollowed out-half log resembling a trough you might use to feed horses,” wrote Rosenzweig in a press release he sent me when I called him about this fascinating style of beer. “A hole is drilled at the bottom of one end, and the bottom is filled with Juniper boughs. Malt, rye and unmalted wheat are then mashed over a very long period of time and poured onto the juniper, which functions as a filter bed. The resulting wort is then fermented with no boil and no hops, using bread yeast,” reads the release.
From there, once fermentation is done, the beer is cooled and served immediately, and at the time, was considered a special brew served at special occasions. The beer has low carbonation, is typically cloudy, and because fermentation isn’t complete at the time of serving, it’s on the sweeter side with clove/banana-like flavor characteristics, and the influence of spruce and juniper on the flavor side.
Rosenzweig’s sahti – SaunaBrau – is historically accurate, but different in a number of ways.
“We used local wheat from VanderWeele Farms in Palmer, which is where we get all of our wheat for our beers,” says Rosenzweig. “The juniper we used is commercial; you don’t’ want to use the wrong species, because some are toxic and I didn’t want to take the risk. The Alaskan white spruce came out of my front yard. Traditionally, you’d use a Finnish bread yeast that you can’t get here. We thought about just using bread, but that was unpredictable, so we used a commercial weizen yeast to ferment the beer. It’s very similar because of the phenolics it produces,” says Rosenzweig of the ingredients.
There are a number of inherent and obvious challenges in producing a commercial version of sahti, and it isn’t e the sourcing of the ingredients.
“I crushed the juniper berries by hand. It took a lot of force. They were super rigid and hard to crush. When I was crushing them, they were flying all over the place and rolling around like out of control ball bearings. They were sticky; it got all over everything,” says Rosenzweig of his initial frustrations.
“The spruce goes in the mash. There is no boil like in a regular beer. I was trying to mimic the Stone Age wooden brewing device. You lay the boughs in the bottom to form a filter, so we threw the juniper berries and the spruce boughs in the mash. We never used the brew kettle. We wanted a long, slow mash and just used the brew kettle to circulate the brew around, back in and forth between the vessels, round and round, for six hours. A traditional beer would mash maybe an hour,” says Rosenzweig of the initial process, which resulted in sticking the mash twice, somewhat of a brewer’s nightmare if it happens even once.
When the brewing process is done, the yeast is added and the beer starts to ferment. This is where things get sketchy in a hurry. The beer’s traditionally consumed when it’s still fermenting. This is all fine and good –even in a modern brewery – if the intent is to serve it from kettle to cup.
Yes, there will be some on tap at Turnagain Brewing starting today, but how did Rosenzweig make good on his promise to bottle this stuff – about 100 cases of it – so it can sell from Brown Jug store shelves?
Because the beer’s still fermenting, putting it in bottles just won’t work without stopping the fermentation. “The arrested fermentation is why this style is not mass produced. Unless you keep this beer right at freezing, it will continue to ferment, and if it’s bottled, the bottles could explode due to fermentation starting back up and building up too much pressure,” says Rosenzweig of the risk.
The solution? Pasteurization in the bottle. How the hell do you do that in a small, artisan craft brewery in Anchorage, Alaska?
“We developed a technique at Turnagain to do that in our mash tun,” says Rosenzweig. “You load the bottles in plastic crates, we use milk crates, and can get nine cases worth in the mash tun at a time. We use the brew kettle to heat the water and circulate it through the mash tun around the bottles very slowly until they achieve an internal temperature of 150 degrees which very gently pasteurizes the beer, which stops fermentation,” he says.
In this sense, sahti has to be a labor of love. If Turnagain cranked out around 100 cases this way, that means at least 10 mash tun pasteurization processes. Can you say, “labor intensive?”
Why in the hell would you want to screw around with stuff like this when a simple IPA that can be cranked out almost effortlessly would probably sell better anyway?
“Because that’s what we do,” says Rosenzweig. “Our corporate culture is about getting weird and innovative and doing what we have to do with what we have here. We experiment. We have fun, we do things for customers that others don’t,” he says.
It’s true. None of the beers at Turnagain Brewing are mainstream. A lot of causal beer drinkers probably couldn’t even spell or pronounce some of the styles. That’s the differentiator for Turnagain and why the brewery’s so popular with true craft beer aficionados.
“I’m glad we did this. I have no idea if it’s good or bad because I’ve never had one before to compare. It’s arguably not actually beer, I guess, but it’s very drinkable, interesting and certainly there’s nothing objectionable. Raw beers have a strange consistency; not bad, but different,” says Rosenzweig of the 8.1 percent alcohol by volume beer that he’s undeniably proud of, and rightfully so.
I’ll be getting both versions because I think the draft version at the brewery and the bottled version from Brown Jug will show subtle differences.
If you’re a serious craft beer drinker, don’t miss SaunaBraw, probably the only sahti that has ever been produced in Alaska, and quite possibly the only one that ever will be, based on the complexity of making it and getting it to market.
“Will we brew it again? It depends on how it’s received,” says Rosenzweig. “There’s an attraction to the novelty and the rare style, but I don’t have a sense of how much people will like it. Sure, if it goes well, we’ll brew it again; what brewer wouldn’t?”
I don’t get the sense he is really concerned. It’ll move. It well sell. Turnagain’s unique beers always do, and that’s why I chase them before they’re gone.