Finnish Beer: A Full Guide

When somebody mentions Finland, the first thing you think of probably isn’t beer. Most of us have heard of Finlandia vodka, but can you name a Finnish beer off the top of your head? To be honest, until recently I wasn’t even sure where Finland was!

However, Finland ranks ninth on the list of per capita beer consumption, which puts it firmly on my map of countries’ beers to check out.

Despite the high level of taxation common in many a Scandanavian country, and the restrictive alcohol laws on the sale of beers, this beverage accounts for over half the alcohol consumed in Finland and is increasingly popular with the younger Finns.

Finnish people love their beer and there are many different types to choose from. They are very proud of their long beer history, which dates back to the Middle Ages. In fact, one of the world’s oldest beer styles still produced today, Sahti, originates from Finland in 1366.

The Fins even have a national Finnish Beer Day celebrated on October 13th, which commemorates the founding of the oldest brewery in Finland, the Sinebrychoff Brewery, and the birth of modern Finnish beer.

Finnish Beer and the Law

brown concrete building with Finland flags under blue sky during daytime
Photo by Jaakko Kemppainen on Unsplash

There are many different types of beer available in Finland that you probably won’t find anywhere else in Europe.

Most of these beers have been specially designed to comply with archaic alcohol laws to be sold in more places than Government run franchises.

if you have ever lived in or visited a Nordic country, you will no doubt be aware of the policies regarding alcohol. Currently, state-run shops are the only stores allowed to sell alcoholic beverages if the alcohol content is over 5%.

That’s pretty much all alcoholic beverages except lower ABV or beers we would class as “session beer.”

However, recent law reforms in 2018 pushed up the acceptable alcohol level of a beer so it could be up to 5.6% ABV before it was only available to be sold in the state-run Alko stores.

While all beers can be sold in pubs, bars, and restaurants, only beers that fall under the dreaded 5.6% alcohol per volume limit can be sold in supermarkets and non-government stores. Otherwise, everything else must be purchased through an Alko store.

This unique fact forced the beer companies of Finland to diversify. The brewers had to experiment with their beer chemistry to bring down the alcohol percentages the normal fermentation process would give without sacrificing flavor.

The 5 Classes of Beer in Finland

Karhu, Lapin Kulta ja Koff beer cans in the marke
Image by Wiki Commons

Beer was originally organized into 5 tax classes by Finnish law until 1995 when Finland joined the EU. The law was reformed to meet EU standards and tax alcohol directly related to the percent of alcohol contained in the product.

However, the old classifications are still widely used and also determine where the beers can be sold.

 Percentage by VolumeSold in Pubs and restaurantsSold in SupermarketsNOTES
Class I Beer0.0% - 2.8%YESYESNo license is required to sell.
Class II Beer2.8% - 3.7%YESYESStronger ABV needs a license to sell.
Class III Beer3.7% - 4.6%YESYESKnow as "keskiolut" (literally translates as middle beer), the most popular class of beer in Finland
Class IVA Beer4.8% - 5.2%YESYESPreviously sold as Export beers, prior to the 1995 tax reform had steep taxation.
Class IVB Beer5.2% - 8%YESNO**Law change in 2108 now allows for the lower end of this class up to 5.6% to be sold in Supermarkets

Major Breweries in Finland

The Finnish beer market could be described as more of an international market rather than locally owned. Major international brewing groups Carlsberg of Denmark and Heineken of Holland control nearly 80% of the market between them.

With a market share of 46.9%, Carlsberg International owns the oldest renowned Sinebychoff brewery, and beer brands include Koff and Karhu.

Heineken International owns the Hartwall brewery, which produces brands such as Lapin, Kulta, and Karjala and makes up 29.5% of the national market.

Olvi is the largest Finn-owned brewery and controls approximately a further 20% of the market, producing what is arguably Finland’s most popular mainstream beer, Olvi Tuplapukki.

This beer is a strong lager that was previously only available in Alko stores prior to 2018.

The rest of the Finnish beer market consists of smaller regional brewers or microbreweries, which were all founded post-1985.

recent figures show there are nearly 100 microbreweries in Finland, and because of the 2018 law reforms, they are allowed to sell their products directly to consumers.

Some of the more popular Finnish breweries to look out for, many of which now export their beers, are as follows:

  • Auran panimo
  • Bock (brewery)
  • Brewcats
  • CoolHead Brew
  • Fat Lizard
  • Kakola Brewing Company
  • Kiiski
  • Kvarken
  • Maku Brewing
  • Olaf
  • Tuju
  • Ylikylä Olut
  • Alands Bryggeri (Stallhagen)

3 Finnish Styles of Beer to Try

As we previously stated, Finnish beers go way back in history with the Ancient Sahti beer being recognized as one of the oldest beer styles continuously produced to this day.

Farmhouse ale is also one of the most popular ancient styles of beer in Finland, along with the relative newcomer, Baltic Porter, which is partially influenced by the Imperial Stouts of the nearby regions.

Sahti

The most traditional of all Finnish beers, Sahti was originally produced in the Santa-Häme, Päijat-Häme, and Pohjois-Satakunta regions of Finland.

Sahti as a beer style is now brewed worldwide and even has its own BCJP category as a historical beer, found in their guidelines under category 27.

American brewers now produce their own versions which, although they are normally limited runs produced once a year, are still easier to find than the Finnish beer-type originals.

Popular examples of the style include:

  • Samuel Adams Norse Legend from the Boston Beer Company
  • Black Trumpet Sahti from Scratch Brewing Company
  • Kivisahti (Stone Sahti) from Hollolan Hirvi
  • Sah’Tea from Dogfish Head Brewing Company
  • Sahti from Propolis Brewing Company

Traditionally, Sahti was produced by the farming community using local raw ingredients such as malted barley, other cereal malts, and cereals such as wheat, oats, rye, and barley.

Malting would be accomplished by germinating these grains in a wet sack and then drying or smoking them in that Scandinavian favorite, the sauna.

green trees beside lake under white clouds during daytime
Photo by Alex Inkiläinen on Unsplash

With a minimal boil in the brewing process, hops rarely played a large role in the aroma of Sahti. Instead, herbs and aromatics from nearby forests would be used for the aroma such as juniper twigs and rye straws.

The BJCP describes the appearance of Sahti as being a pale off-yellow to dark brown, normally falling in a medium amber color.

Unfiltered, it may often be cloudy, and with little carbonation, very little head will form.

The aroma of a Sahti should be sweet and grainy with hints of caramel and spicy rye. The use of Juniper should be noticeable but not overpowering.

Banana esters may be common with the yeasts now used but the beer shouldn’t smell sour at all.

The flavor will normally be strongly influenced by the band and clove elements of the yeast, with a grainy spiced rye taste and possible caramel notes. A low bitterness with very little or no hop flavor, the juniper berries or branches may add a little piney flavor.

Farmhouse Ale

Farmhouse ales are another ancient beer style that as the name suggests was brewed by European farming communities using their local hops and grains.

Techniques that are not often used in modern brewing methods, such as the use of hot stones to gently heat the mash, and brewing in various European regions, meant there were many varied styles that could often be region specific.

Farmhouse ales were made wherever people cultivated grains and were a prevalent style across Europe.

In some places, they were prepared and kept for special occasions, but in areas where grain was plentiful, they were enjoyed on a more daily basis by the local community.

The choice of grains used would depend on the availability, with barley being the most common, but rye and oats were also commonly used.

Baltic Porter

Evolved from the British Porter style, the Baltic Porter is also influenced by the stronger Imperial stouts. Typically, beers that fall into this Baltic style will have an ABV of anywhere between 5.5% and 9.5% alcohol by content.

As a full-bodied smooth brew, typical dark malt flavors are complemented with aromas of toast, caramel, licorice, chocolate, dried fruits, and hints of coffee.

The Baltic Porter was first brewed when stronger and more hoppy versions of British porters were sent to Russia. Shipments arrived first in the Northern European ports of Scandinavia and the Baltic region, hence the name.

To this day, many Finnish brewers still produce fine Baltic Porters, although the ABV is often dumbed down to fit in with the strict alcohol percentage laws of taxation and distribution in Finland.

Notable Beer Brands of Finland

Olvi

The biggest and most popular Finish-owned brewery is Olvi. This brand proudly states that all their beers are used with locally sourced ingredients other than the hops, which have to be imported as the Finnish weather prevents the cultivation of quality hops.

using traditional brewing methods, the beers are matured slowly and patiently.

many of their beers are heavily influenced by the craft beers of the US, with them producing Pale Ales, a New England IPA, and traditional IPAs.

These are produced along with seasonal Finnish brews such as OLvi Jouluolet, a full-bodied dark lager beer perfect for the festive season.

Koff Beers

Koff is the brand name used by the Sinebrychoff brewery to market a range of lager-type beers.

Their beers are named after the class they fall into, from Class I to Class IVB by the alcoholic content. As an internationally awarded aromatic Finnish lager, it is lightly hopped with a medium body and a softer taste.

Bright and golden yellow in color, Koff has a dense foam and is similar to many American adjunct lagers.

Lapin Kulta

Meaning Lapland Gold, Lapin Kulta was originally produced in the Lapland town of Tornio but has since been acquired by the famous Hartwall brewery (Heineken owned). It is now brewed in the southern Finnish town of Sahti.

Lapin Kulta produces a variety of lagers of varying strengths and their focus is on high-quality ingredients like local malt barley, clear Baltic waters, and the company’s own special yeast strain.

Successful marketing meant this was once the most popular beer brand in Finland, but in recent years, competitors like Olvi and Karhu have overtaken them and they now sit in 4th place in a competitive market.

For a clean-tasting lager of the Baltic, it’s still worth hunting downs Lapin Kulta beer and most are now exported as part of the Heineken group.

Karhu Beer

Another brand that now falls under the Carlsberg umbrella is Karhu beer, which is owned by the Sinebrychoff brewery. First brewed in 1929, as of 2020 the 4.6% ABV Karhu had the sixth largest share of the market of Finnish beers sold in all shops.

Brewed using water, barley, malt, barley starch, and hops, Karhu even makes varieties such as Double Hops (unusual in Finnish beers) and a Rye lager too.

Finnish Beers – Final Thoughts

With the high levels of taxation and restrictive selling practices, it’s a wonder anybody in Finland drinks any beer at all. But they do and lots of it! There is a thriving microbrewery and craft beer scene worth checking out too.

Hopefully next time somebody talks about Finland, after reading this quick intro to the beer scene you can chip in with a few beer facts.

Keep an eye on your local beer distributor for any Finnish imports, as many of the beers are now exported thanks to partnerships with large global brewing concerns. People who have tasted Finnish beers will often argue they are some of the best in the world, and with centuries of brewing traditions behind many of the ales, they could be right!

Beer plays such an important part in Finland’s culture. They even released a NATO-inspired beer, OTAN beer from the Olaf brewery as they seek to join the NATO alliance. Now that’s commitment!

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