2011 GABF Interview with Scott Manning of Vintage Brewing Company

Madison, Wisconsin is full of great breweries. One of the best and most interesting in my view is Vintage Brewing Company. Brewer Scott Manning has been in the business of brewing for 15 years. Much of that time has been spent at production breweries or corporate brewpub chains. He loves the freedom and creativity that he can exercise at Vintage. In his own words he feels like “a 4 year old running around naked.” He takes a “don’t get used to it” approach to the beers he crafts for the pub. He always wants people to try something new, so there are only a couple of beers in the line-up that are almost always on tap. He’s been winning awards for his creations, including a silver medal at the 2011 GABF and silver and bronze medals at the 2012 World Beer Cup.

I am more than a little obsessed with Sahti, a little-known, ancient beer style from Finland. Manning brews two of them at Vintage; Summer Sahti and Joulupukki Winter Sahti. These beers lean heavily on rye and juniper for their unique flavor. Manning even ferments his winter version in the traditional way, using baking yeast instead of a cultured brewer’s yeast strain.

If you are in Madison, Vintage Brewing Company is well worth a stop.

A Sahti and a Gose from Sam Adams

Two soon-to-be-released beers in the Sam Adams Single Batch series reach back to lost or nearly-lost beer styles of the old country. Verloren – it means “lost” in German – is a gose (go’ zuh), a style that originated in Saxony, the area around Leipzig, Germany. The style had ceased to be brewed until a small brewpub in Leipzig called Bayerischer Bahnhof resurrected it. Gose is a wheat-based ale, typically brewed with coriander and a touch of salt. A bright, lactic acidity is usually present. It’s a tasty beer and the perfect accompaniment to nearly any thai food. Try gose with Thai beef salad. You will be amazed.

The second upcoming release is Norse Legend, based on a Finnish beer style called Sahti; a beer that in Finland is still brewed today much as it was 500 years ago. Anyone who has talked to me about homebrewing in the past couple of years knows that I am all about the Sahti. Once my friend Mark, a Brit who had been living in Finland, tossed down the gauntlet to make our own sahti I was hooked. We brewed three batches, trying to stay as close to tradition as possible given the realities of my homebrewing rig. We used loads of rye, filtered through juniper twigs, left the beer un-hopped , un-boiled, and un-carbonated, and we fermented it with bread yeast, once smuggling a cube of yeast back from Finland. We even hosted a special episode of Brewing TV to chronicle our process. Our results were mixed, and we never quite achieved the deliciousness of the commercial examples that Mark brought back from Finland, but the exploration was fun and I have gained a real fascination and love for this unusual style.

Sam Adams certainly got my attention with these two unusual beers, but did they pull them off?

Here’s my notes:

Norse Legend
Boston Beer Company, Boston, Massachusetts
Style: Sahti
Serving Style: 22 oz bottle

Aroma: Caramel, bread crust, raisins, and the herbal/spruce character of gin. There are hints of chocolate, but caramel is king. Some subtle fruity esters mingle with aromas of spice, like nutmeg or ginger.

Appearance: Deep mahogany and hazy. A splendiferous stand of creamy, ivory foam falls slowly and remains as a thick cap on the surface all the way to the bottom of the glass.

Flavor: Thick and creamy caramel floods the tastebuds right away. Interesting light fruit flavors like pineapple or sour apple come in long after swallowing and linger. Many flavors return from the aroma; the bread crust is there, raisins, and the piney gin flavor of juniper berries. The berries are there, but where are the twigs? Hint of roastiness and maybe a slight whiff of smoke make an appearance. Bitterness is low and I don’t detect any hop flavor. Noticeable alcohol reinforces the gin-like taste of juniper berries. Loads of fruit mid-palate; berries, orange, melon. Aaahhhh, there’s the twigs. They come in much later as the beer warms.

Mouthfeel: Thick and creamy, Medium-full body. Low carbonation. Warming alcohol.

Overall: This is closer to the commercial examples from Finland than any other American-made sahti I have tried. It’s a nice beer for sipping from a kuksa, a traditional Finnish wooden cup, on a winter’s night above the Arctic Circle – or from a tulip glass on a chilly spring evening in Minnesota. This so far is my favorite from the Single Batch series.

Boston Beer Company, Boston, Massachusetts
Style: Gose
Serving Style: 22 oz bottle

Aroma: Coriander and wheat. Light citrusy fruits. There’s an almost savory, herbal quality that makes me think of oregano, but it’s not quite that.

Appearance: Deep golden color, almost amber. Cloudy. The small, off-white head leaves lace on the glass.

Flavor: Very wheaty. Next to wheat, coriander is the predominant flavor, but not overwhelming. It’s all kept in balance. A background saltiness gives a savory sensation and sticks to the back of the tongue on the way out. Some orange citrus notes counter the salt.

Mouthfeel: Light body. Medium carbonation.

Overall Impression: First let me say that I really enjoyed this beer. It’s a refreshing, summery beer that perfectly complemented the chicken bouillabaisse I made for dinner. Taken for what it is, it’s delightful. I don’t like to be a style Nazi, but there is a point at which you have to say “this isn’t what you say it is.” Based on other examples I have tasted and readings on the style, I expect some lactic tartness. That was totally lacking in this beer. The fermentation character seemed very neutral to me. It was like an American wheat beer with coriander and salt.

Huvila Arctic Circle Ale

My friend Mark and I have been trying for some time to re-create a traditional Finnish Sahti. The process has made me a bit obsessed with the style. I like to try any and all commercial examples I can find. Some get pretty close to the “sahti from a bucket” that Mark describes from a bar visit in Finland. Others are good beer, but they’re not really sahti. Huvila Arctic Circle Ale is one that gets pretty close to the real thing.  Here’s my notes:

Arctic Circle Ale
Malmgårdin Panimo, Malmgård, Finland
Style: Sahti
Serving Style: 16 oz bottle

Aroma: Copious caramel and melanoidin malt. Dark rye-bread crusts. Vaguely woody spruce notes in the background, but very light. Black licorice and molasses. Sweet. A bit like Nyquil, but in a good way.

Appearance: Drinking it out of a hotel paper cup. I can’t see it. Seems to be dark brown, but I can’t really tell. The tan head is very creamy and super long-lasting. Leaves not just lace, but thick rings of foam on the cup.

Flavor: Malt is the main player, and thick, rich malt it is. Burnt caramel and melanoidins carry over from the aroma. Black Strap molasses. The spicy bite of rye moderates the sweetness, stimulating my memories of great German Roggenbrot (man I miss the bread in Germany).  Juniper offers woody spruce and gin notes in the background. Never takes over. Alcohol is apparent even though it is just a hint over 7%. Fleeting tastes of bitter cocoa nibs and dried, dark fruits. Bitterness is low, just enough to keep it from being cloying.

Mouthfeel: Thick, rich, and creamy with low carbonation. Warming alcohol.

Overall Impression: A bit like rye bread smeared with molasses and sprinkled with spruce needles. It gives the impression of a beer that is much stronger than it is. Based on traditional sahti, an ancient Finnish brew that is still made much as it was 500 years ago, Arctic Circle Ale is a heavy-duty, throw-back of a winter warmer from above the Arctic Circle. Sip and savor.


Making Sahti on Brewing TV

Boy, I have been posting a lot of videos lately.

My brewing friend Mark Roberts and I have been making repeated attempts to brew Sahti, a primitive, Finnish beer that is still brewed pretty much as it was 500 years ago. Traditional Sahti is unhopped, unboiled, uncarbonated, flavored with juniper twigs, and fermented with fresh baking yeast. Mark’s wife is a Finn and they lived in Finland for several years. On a recent trip he was able to smuggle back some authentic bottled versions for us to sample, giving us a benchmark to aim for. With this benchmark in mind we made our third attempt in October. We are coming closer, but still have not quite hit the mark. You can read about our first attempt here.

For the third attempt Chip Walton from Brewing TV came and shot our brewday. Here it is.

Brewing TV – Episode 24: Sahti Throwdown from Brewing TV on Vimeo.