What has happened? We’re talking about beer now the way we used to talk about wine. It’s all about taste palates, well-balanced beer with the right amount of body and so on.
There is no tradition of cultivating vines in the Nordic countries and we have just about killed off our own beer culture. The Finnish beer Sahti is the oldest beer that is still in production. It is over 1,000 years old. Otherwise we have long looked down upon our own drinking habits and opted to import the Central European drinking culture. But something is in the process of happening now.
The new microbrewery culture that has come over from the USA via Denmark, Sweden and Finland and food cultures like “slow food” are here to stay. People have tired of the large brewery companies. Tired of ready meals. The main topic of conversation in bearded hipster society is suddenly sour dough. And beer is about to become part of elegant culture – the new wine, maybe?
We visited Stallhagen, the Ålander arts and crafts centre and microbrewery. Like many others, it started with ultra-ambitious plans despite limited resources, but these days the brewery has matured. It makes beer that has often done exceptionally well in international tastings, and in several instances has actually won.
One reason for the successes is the master brewer Mats. When he talks beer, he does so with a certain authority, the way people do when they know what they’re talking about.
“When you people at Stallhagen talk about “slow beer”, what do you mean?”
“It’s simply that we don’t accelerate the speed the beer is made at. It takes as long as it takes to produce it. If it takes three, six or eight weeks, then that’s as long as it takes. Even if we grow we are going to stick to that – if the beer needs time, then it should get time. We have many areas of common interest with the Slow Food movement. You could call it a philosophy of enjoyment. We want to defend the right to enjoy and raise respect for a human rhythm of life and production. That is of fundamental importance to us. We are what we eat and drink!”
“OK, but how is your beer different from that of your competitors?”
“The vision is to create well-balanced beer. Since I’m the one who makes the beer, I have an image of what “well-balanced” means. Well-balanced beer can, of course, have a dominant flavour, but it must have a body that goes with the sweetness, alcohol, aroma and so on. We have avoided making extreme beer. There are plenty of people looking for extreme products, but sales are quite low. We try to reach people who are curious about flavours, enthusiasts who want to take the step up from ordinary beer without it becoming too extreme. We’re happy to make a beer with a well-rounded hop flavour, but most of all it must be of good quality.
We have an extensive range. At one end there is traditional Scandinavian beer, German-type lager, like Stallhagen Delikat and Stallhagen III. At the other end we make flavoured beers, beers that may have spices added to them, such as Stallhagen Black Vanilla Cinnamon, which was made with real vanilla and cinnamon sticks. We have made an India Pale Ale. It has a higher alcohol content and has a really clear hop profile. But compared with many other microbreweries we are still moderate, not only in terms of hop profile but also in terms of a clear beer profile in the liquid. Then there is our stout, which is very craftsmanlike. We smoke the malt ourselves. Generally we work quite extensively with classical beer types and apply our concept to them.”
“How big or small is a microbrewery?”
“It’s hard to say. In the USA there are some microbreweries that are huge. We are going for the 600,000-litre mark this year. That would mean running at full capacity. It would make us the fourth-largest microbrewery in Finland, but that doesn’t tell you very much. Nor is it important. We have a wide range: we produce seven varieties of beer at any one time but 17–20 varieties over the whole year. It means that we don’t make as much beer as we could have done if we had focused on a smaller number.”
“What are the market trends? What’s happening?”
“Generally beer is growing more and more. The microbreweries are growing strongly and the large breweries are in decline. Food is one trend these days, and drink is another. Many restaurants focus on the breadth of the range. If we look at restaurants today, they’re also starting to pay more and more attention to beer and offering more options than just one strong variety to go with food. Another thing that is happening is that sales of multipacks are falling in favour of single bottles. This means that these days people like to pick out different varieties – a bottle of this, a bottle of that, and so on. People drink beer in a slightly different way now. When you consider what beers made by microbreweries cost – close to 3–4 euros in an ordinary food store – it’s not the large consumers that buy them. What matters to them is low price.”
“Doesn’t wine have an unchallenged position as the drink to have with food, at least as far as the more elegant end of the market is concerned?”
“We’re not suggesting that beer needs to be the only drink on the table when people eat – just that in the right context there should be a place for it. Beer with a well-rounded hop flavour goes very well with our typical Nordic cuisine served on big occasions. With herring, for instance. Hops go very well with oily herring. If you like barbecuing, think about that barbecue and that perfectly browned meat, and you’ll find that this variety of beer comes in useful. You can start at one end and think about what food you’re preparing and what beer would go with it. What do you want to drink? There is plenty of literature to give you ideas as to how to combine beer with food. Beer isn’t just a drink to get drunk on or a stimulant in itself – it’s an excellent accompaniment to food. Beer can even be a condiment to food, for example steak in stout.”
“What are you doing to stimulate interest in beer?”
“On the one hand we provide everyone who sells our beer, such as Alko in Finland and Systembolaget in Sweden, with information, serving recommendations and that sort of thing. On the other hand we develop old recipes for beer and tell people about them. A few years ago divers found a large number of bottles of champagne and five bottles of beer dating back to the 1800s in a wreck off Åland. The bottles of beer have been analysed now and we have been able to reconstruct the beer, which is believed to be some of the world’s oldest preserved beer. Only 2,000 numbered bottles of Stallhagen Historic Beer 1842 have been released. Viking Line has been given access to them. Bottle number 1 is going to be auctioned on Viking Line Åland’s Facebook page. The date of the auction is 1 April to 1 September 2014.