Eating the Woods Part 3: Among the Pines

(Every month we choose a topic in brewing and look at three beers that elucidate different elements of this issue. The first post of the month introduces the topic, and the subsequent three focus on a single beer each. This month’s theme is, Eating the Woods: Other Traditions of Spicing and Tannic Structure.  This post introduces the beer Among the Pines.) 

First you gather your materials: the stones you will burn, the juniper branches and berries, the barley and rye, the wood for the fire, and some food and drink as you know this will take all day in the sauna. You have set up the kuurna, a hollowed out aspen log covered with a loose mesh of berried juniper branches and rye straws. There is a hole in the bottom of the log which empties into the milk churn in which you will ferment. You are a woman. It could be a hundred years ago, it could be Viking times. You go inside and begin to steep the juniper cuttings in water in the muuripata, a built-in cauldron in all the saunas you have seen with many purposes beyond the alewife’s. You stoke and build up the fire and place your stones in it. You pour in the grains and their sweet and bready smell fills the sauna. You drop the heated stones at the decided intervals with great squealing into the water. You test the heat with your elbow, as good as any thermometer. You understand this process in religious terms, what is happening in the mash and what will happen after; there is something supernatural at play, and you are its steward.  

Before a boil is achieved, after hours of stepping up the temperature with burnt stones, you are ready. You take the muuripata and slowly pour its contents out over the kuurna and a sharp smell of bread and pine fills the air as the grains catch in the mesh of juniper branches and rye straw and the hot, opaque liquor gathers in the milk churn, an impenetrable yellow-russet. 

It is possible that like your Viking neighbors, you have a totem carved with spells which you carry over to each new batch. You feel it is magic; its religious efficacy activates the process of fermentation. A modern brewer would insist that yeast becomes lodged in the groves of the incantations and simply start to eat the sugars once it is dropped in the new wort. It is essentially a version of dry backslopping, not that far from Norwegian farmers and their dried rags of kviek. If you are brewing more recently, you drop in some baker’s yeast. Within a short time, the liquid begins to seethe with bubbles, heat, pump out smells that are alternately fruity and pungently rotten, but soon it will rest, this action of the gods. After the spirits are through with your concoction, you have a turbid brew with rye spiciness, some smokiness, full body, resinous juniper character, a fruity and spicy and funky phenolic profile, with mild tartness that will would increase with time if these beers were not intended to be drunk within the month. You have a sahti. 

A true sahti is a living fossil, like the lungfish or the ginkgo tree: a ancient and simple being who has held on for long enough to live among beings infinitely more “advanced” than itself, a living thing for whom fossils are a mirror. Michael Jackson called the sahti the only “primitive” beer to survive into the modern era. No hops, no boils, wild fermentation, a freaking tree for a mash tun – even the lambic looks futuristic next to it.  It is still available, particularly in Finland itself, and there are many breweries in America who do a version of the Sahti although often this just means a beer with rye and juniper. Even more widely, though, many American brewers seem to have looked to sahti and its cousins like dricku and koduolu as possible inspirations for alternative spicing approaches. The beer we are looking at today, Among the Pines, does exactly that.   

Among the Pines is a stellar example of the clear, bracingly bitter, piney, and resinous IPA that gave America its reputation in the international beer scene, before we abandoned that style mostly for sweet, hazy IPAs with even sweeter adjuncts and names from the pop culture artifacts of the mostly male and white brewers’ childhoods (The childlike sweetness and the children’s movies are of one psychological and cultural piece.) Much of the pine flavor of this beer comes from the old school, high alpha acid, Pacific Northwest hops used: Simcoe and Amarillo. It also, though, comes from when those hops are added in the boil. The earlier in the boil, the more of the bitter and eventually piney and resinous notes are released. When you add it half way through the boil, different effects are achieved, etc. The particular pine and resin character of Dogfish Head’s 90 Minute IPA, comes, of course, from adding hops at regular intervals throughout the 90 minute boil; there’s no other way to get that flavor. That’s why you can see many of the new hazy IPA’s utilizing Simcoe as well, but either very late in the boil or only in dry hopping (dry-hopping is the definitive mode of the hazy IPA), the results being a blandly sweet tropical fruitiness for the most part. However, Among the Pines also utilizes spruce tips, and to really see what they add I think it is helpful to think of a beer similar to Among the Pines which does not utilize them. Torpedo by Sierra Nevada, a criminally underrated IPA that is available everywhere dirt cheap, has a similar yellowing copper color and a similar pine and resin and citrus peel flavor profile, but there is a physicality, a haptic glomming at the end of the taste of Among the Pines, a sensation of receding into amber that is the perfect compliment to tomorrow’s dark solstice.            

Let me just say that Among the Pines is finest IPA we have going in the store, period. Get it. 

Similar Beers in Store: We had, until recently, Spruce Willis, but have sold out. The closest we still is probably just a solid expression of the West Coast IPA like Monument’s other offering, the Battle IPA. We need more pine, spruce, juniper, and firs! Or someone local could make an actual sahti! It is hazy, sour, with a hop-like character- what could be more in style!

If you try Among the Pines, let me know what you think in the comments!

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