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.

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