True to tradition…but which one? Designing a Baltic porter in Helsinki

On paper, it sounds like a no-brainer. You are a brewery in Helsinki, Finland, at a historic location surrounded by the waves of the Baltic Sea, so naturally you brew a Baltic porter. It is what breweries have done in this city for nearly 200 years. A type of beer that was especially popular with our great-great-great-grandparents’ generation in the late 19th century, it has persisted until the present.

As far as I am aware, Suomenlinna Brewery has never had a strong porter in their core range. They have the long-standing regular porter, which is milder at 5.5% ABV. There had been talk of brewing a stronger winter beer for their brewpub. I assume that when you run a brewpub on an island with a Unesco-listed fortress – one of the most visited tourist sites in Finland – it may be nice to have some kind of a winter warmer to keep the visitors happy during the cold months.

The idea that this strong beer could be a Baltic porter came about when I got talking with their brewer, Mikko Salmi, last summer. I had been looking for a ‛case study’ for a writing project with a local angle (more about that sometime soon). Suomenlinna felt like just the right milieu for a dark, warming, strong porter with historical charm. The fact that the brewpub is just a stone’s throw from the home of Nikolai Sinebrychoff, who in 1819 founded one of the most famous porter breweries in the Nordic countries, was just too good a coincidence to miss.

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Surrounded by the Baltic Sea. (Photo: Liisa Huima)

Anatomy of a Baltic porter

To my great delight, Mikko agreed with the idea and got an okay from the brewery ownership. (It is a 700-litre batch to be sold only on tap on the island, so no huge investment from anyone involved.) By the brewing day in early October, we had formed a rough idea of what the beer should be like. Not a Sinebrychoff Porter clone. Maybe more in the Żywiec mold. Not too roasty or stouty. Traditional – no New World hops. Likely with a bottom-fermenting yeast.

I do not know if there really was much rationale behind most of these choices. I have zero brewing skills so it was mainly up to Mikko to decide what best to do. But asking such questions was, for me, largely the point of the whole exercise. Is there such a style as Baltic porter? Is it just imperial stout by another name? Is Sinebrychoff Porter a Baltic porter? Does lager yeast matter? Should this beer be true to a local tradition – and if so, what tradition? A synthesis of all historical porters brewed around the Baltic Sea, or something specific to Helsinki?

In either case, I feared that there would not be much in the way of historical to go upon. I know certain things about porters and their history in Finland and the neighbouring countries. I can venture a guess of when porter was first drunk in Finland (early 1790s, possibly earlier). It obviously came from Britain, possibly via Sweden. I know the names of several breweries who made it in Helsinki since the 1830s, and dozens more all around Finland. But for the most part, I have absolutely no idea how those early porters tasted, what ingredients went into them or how exactly they were brewed.

I think Michael Jackson coined the term ‛Baltic porter’ after tasting beers in post-Soviet Estonia sometime in the early 1990s. He probably felt it necessary to come up with a catch-all term for porter-style beers originating in this part of the world a) because many of them were bottom-fermented and thus were not porters or stouts in the strict sense, and b) while they were all different, they are all holdovers of roughly the same cultural tradition that had developed over a long time in the Baltic Sea region.

The Russian Tsars, of course, had loved English porters – everyone knows this. But not only they: the Swedes developed their affection for the black stuff in the second half of the 18th century. Apart from the imperial St Petersburg, British ships delivered beers to Danzig, Riga and other ports far from the Tsarist court. Presumably porter was among these beers and the people of these cities, too, enjoyed it – at least those who could afford expensive import beer.

Imports of British porters to the region continued throughout the 19th century. After spending a couple of nights browsing through digitised newspaper ads from that period, I could now tell you where to find Barclay Perkins Double Brown Stout in 1860s Helsinki – just in case you ever had the chance to go there in a time-machine. I am not sure whether this beer came via A. Le Coq’s export agency or someone else. The word ‛porter’ was often included in the stout ads because it was already a familiar word to the locals, while attributes such as double, brown, or stout were perhaps less well understood.

Lager yeast or not?

Locally brewed versions of porter had first emerged in the late 18th century in Sweden, early 19th in St Petersburg and possibly slightly later in Finland, Poland and other parts of the then Russian Empire. Indisputably, the earliest ones were brewed with a top-fermenting yeast because the lager-brewing techniques would only arrive here in the mid-19th century. After that, I suppose both yeast types were used.

‛Bayersk porter’ (Bavarian porter) was sometimes mentioned in Finland and Scandinavia. I cannot say for sure what that was, but it sounds like bottom-fermented porter: another style of beer made locally but with the new ‛Bavarian method’. There seems to have been also ‛Prussian porter’ – I recently read in a Latvian blog that it was popular there in the late 19th century. Again bottom-fermented? Or not?

Żywiec in Poland probably brewed with lager yeast since 1881 when they started making porter – or this is what I heard from Grzegorz Zwierzyna, who is an expert on the subject. As for most other porter makers that I am familiar with, I have no idea which yeast they used in the early days. Saku and A. Le Coq in Estonia, Aldaris in Latvia and several others switched to bottom-fermentation at some point but we do not know when. I have not read of any of the old Helsinki breweries using lager yeast for porter, but it is possible that some of them did.

Marcin Chmielarz, another Polish porter guru I spoke to last summer, told me that many Poles nowadays think porters should always be brewed with lager yeast. Marcin does not necessarily agree. Generally, big breweries in Poland brew strong porter with their bottom-fermenting yeast while many micro or craft brewers use ale yeast. But they all ferment in cold temperatures so the type of yeast has little import on the taste. This is also what Põhjala does in Estonia – both of its Baltic porters, Must Kuld and Öö, are top-fermented but in cold temperatures. I would guess that the same applies to many craft breweries in other Baltic Sea countries.

For the Baltic porter of the Suomenlinna brewpub, we finally opted for lager yeast. I think the essence of Baltic porter is not this or that yeast type, but the fact that brewers from Saxony to the far North of Finland translated their idea of British porter into an actual beer, typically made with local malts, hops, water and yeast. The results showed variance because the distance from Gose lands to Sahti lands was much bigger in the 19th century than it is now. You could say the yeast that we chose for our brew is a kind of tribute to this era and its brewing philosophy, rather than an attempt to replicate any particular Finnish porter from that time.

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The brewery is next to the ferry pier in Suomenlinna. (Photo: Liisa Huima)

Nice German-style malts and hops

Having said that, a couple of the more famous porters of the Helsinki region in the late 19th century – their heyday – claimed to be ‛closer to English porter than anyone else’ or even ‛brewed with malts imported from England’. I have not seen any historical recipes and I doubt if (m)any exist. I have no clear idea of what exactly they meant by the beer being close to English porter, nor what kind of English malts the Helsinki brewers could get hold of at the time.

With Mikko we went for the malt base of a Polish style porter, in rough terms. ‛Don’t make it with pils malts and roasted malts’, was Marcin’s advice. ‛Instead, use something that gives it a nice body, such as Munich, caramel or brown malts.’ We heeded his warning at least partly and used lots of pale ale malt, complimented with some crystal malts and little quantities of dark, choco and black malts.

This, by the way, is not light years away from the Sinebrychoff or Żywiec malt profiles, although both of those two use pilsner malts in combination with something darker. Żywiec Porter also has some sugar as an adjunct. Sinebrychoff uses Saaz hops, and I would expect Żywiec to use local, German-style hops because even ordinary lagers in Poland often contain Polish hops.

We actually did what some American homebrewers advice against when brewing Baltic porters: we used UK hops (East Kent Goldings). You can of course read this as a nod to the British roots of the style. As a tribute to the Poles – modern-day masters of Baltic porter – we also put one kilo of quasi-noble Lublin hops in the whirlpool. The total hopping rate was relatively low, again in keeping with the Baltic interpretations of the porter style rather than the old imperial ones.

Taste them while you can

The beer is now on tap on the island (Ravintola Suomenlinnan Panimo, Suomenlinna C1). It is a straightforward, well-balanced and not too sweet dark beer clocking at 7.5 % ABV, with dubbel-like overtones on the nose and licoricey and slightly roasted malts in the taste. The hopping, though moderate (33 IBU), seems clearly European. Tasting the beer, I got the feeling that the mission had been accomplished and the result tied back to the original idea.

Of course the occasional brewpub customer who just walks in from the cold and orders a nice, dark winter beer is unlikely to taste in it all the historical contemplation and stylistic confusion that I have just described. But those with a romantic mind may imagine that the 18th century maritime fortress of Suomenlinna belongs to the original world of porter, where trade ships criss-crossed the Baltic Sea loaded with beer barrels and other cargo.

All things considered, this is not a bad time to come to Helsinki for anyone interested in the Baltic porter legacy. The long-standing classic Sinebrychoff Porter is, of course, always available in a number of bars in the city, as is X-Porter from Malmgård Brewery. Bryggeri Helsinki, another brewpub in the city centre, has also introduced a Baltic porter as a winter seasonal this year, and the state liquor store Alko has a range of porters from breweries such as Iso-Kalla, Pyynikki, Stallhagen, Vakka-Suomi and Cool Head. Suomenlinna Brewery itself – not the island brewpub but its mainland arm – recently reintroduced a one-off imperial porter called Victory, another interesting one at 8.3% ABV.

(Text: Teemu Vass)

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Mikko and a bag of malt.

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Five months later.

2 kommenttia artikkeliin ”True to tradition…but which one? Designing a Baltic porter in Helsinki

  1. Fascinating: I do so wish I had been able to taste this beer. I have been doing a lot of research into porter and stout brewing around the Baltic region, and while Michael Jackson probably coined the term ’Baltic porter” (though it appears to have been after drinking Polish porter rather than Estonian), funnily, so far the earliest mention I have been able to find is from an American writer, Bill Yenne, in a book first published in 1994, and the earliest use by Jackson I can find is 1998.

    Historically there is most certainly a difference between what became ”Baltic porter” and Imperial stout: Baltic porters were descended from, or brewed in imitation of what was called ”double brown stout” in Britain, around 7 or 8 per cent alcohol by volume. Imperial stout was ”extra double stout”, one step up, at 10 or 11 per cent abv. The double brown stout seems to have been the standard export porter from London, and I don’t think there would have been much difference between any of the beers brewed in imitation of this in countries around the Baltic, in Denmark, by Carnegie and his predecessors in Sweden, by the Cazalets and others in St Petersburg, by Synebrychoff in Finland and by various brewers in Poland, and double brown stout as brewed and drunk in London.

    What then happened is that the Poles found themselves cut off from the London market from 1824 by their Russian masters, and made a big effort to brew their own porter/double brown stout. Then ”Bavarian” brewing techniques, that is, bottom fermentation, became popular in Poland, and eventually, around 1880 or so, some Polish brewers began brewing their porters using bottom-fermenting yeasts as well – though the biggest Polish brewer, and porter brewer, Haberbusch and Schiele of Warsaw, always seems to have used top-fermentation to make its porters. This was the birth of ”Baltic” porter, the combination of a porter grain bill and a lager yeast, and it ought, probably, to be called ”Polish porter” rather than Baltic porter. Soviet Russia, according to the Russian beer writer Pavel Egorov, adopted the ”Polish porter” method of brewing porter after Lvov was incorporated into the Soviet state in 1939, and the ”Polish” method would have this been imposed on the Baltic states when they were incorporated into the USSR as well.

    What we have then, is that a Baltic porter is not, or ought not to be, just any porter brewed in the Baltic region, because much of the time, like Carnegie porter (which I believe still uses a top-fermenting yeast), they’re just going to be descended in a straight line from the original London porters they were brewed to imitate, and no different to, say, a porter from Belgium. Instead the term Baltic porter ought to be reserved for those porter-like beers made with lager-like decoction mashes and bottom-fermenting yeasts. At the same time, there is definitely a clear difference between Baltic and Imperial porters: strength being the main one. That’s not to say you can’t have a Baltic Imperial porter, that is, a beer made to Imperial stout strength, using Baltic porter methods …

    Tykkää

    • Thanks, Martyn! Great you found your way around here – I really appreciate your comment. In case you’re in Helsinki sometime in November or December, drop me a line. The second edition of Suomenlinna Baltic Porter should be on tap from early November. It’s a bit simpler than last winter – no Polish hops, shorter lagering – but otherwise largely the same recipe.

      Everything you wrote about the history of Baltic porter and how it was different from imperial stout etc. was very interesting. It certainly makes sense that the tradition we have around here is descended from the 7–8% double brown stouts rather than the stronger imperial stouts. That said, I know a local brewer in Helsinki (Robsahm, not Sinebrychoff) named his beers Extra Imperial Stout and Imperial Porter but that was quite late in the day, 1890s to 1910s, and we don’t know the strengths.

      In case you’re interested, I’ve found a couple of points from Finnish-language sources:

      First, the reason I didn’t rule out the existence of early bottom-fermented porters in Finland (pre-Żywiec) is that we know of at least two breweries in Turku – Kingelin and Amalienborg –, who began operation as “Bavarian breweries” in 1851 and 1855, respectively, and both brewed what was sold in the 1850s as “Bavarian porter”. These are of course only two isolated cases so I didn’t dare draw any further conclusions. (Thanks to Antti Räty for digging the information out of the local archives.)

      These beers, I assumed, must have been bottom-fermented porters, and I thought if there were two cases in Turku there may have been more elsewhere. Of course, apart from the trade name, we know practically nothing about these beers, their strengths, grain bills etc.

      As for the first appearances of the term Baltic porter, another Finnish-language text is an article by Michael Jackson in the 1994:1 issue of Olutlehti, a Finnish beer magazine. He wrote: “I’ve always liked Baltic-style porters, and one of the best among them is Sinebrychoff Porter.” (As far as I know, the text was only published in Finnish, so the above is my back-translation – I haven’t seen his original English manuscript.) I wonder if this counts – of course he talks about Baltic-style porter here, not Baltic porter.

      Tykkää

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