Beer Tasting in Moose Country

There's a moose for almost every 53 people in Finland. And yet during a recent six day stay I didn't spot a single one. Plenty of snow and ice, but not so much as a glimpse of the enormous antlered herbivore. Well, except this guy. I photographed him in Hollola, a little town just outside of Lahti, near Lake Päijänne.

I had found my way to this medieval church village with the help of Pekka Kääriäinen, a well-known sahti advocate, entrepreneur, and head of the Finnish Association for Small Breweries. After spending the morning showing me all around his hometown, he'd insisted on introducing me to his friend Ilkka Sipilä, the owner of a place called Maaseuturavintola Hollolan Hirvi, or Hollolan Moose Countryside Restaurant. A place with a very small on-site brewery. And while it technically wasn't open for the season, the parking lot had been plowed, and Pekka assured me that it was no problem to drop by on a Friday afternoon in late winter. Plus, he explained over the pop music spilling from his car radio, sahti is still brewed the traditional way at Hollolan Hirvi—by adding heated stones to the mash tun instead of hot water—and I simply couldn't leave the country without meeting Ilkka.

Unfortunately, there wasn't a drop of the aromatic, juniper-infused farmhouse beer to be had when we arrived, so I settled for a taste of Tumma Hirvi, or Dark Moose (4.5% ABV), instead. Ordinarily a glass with set you back €6 (about $7.80), but turn up with a respected Finnish brewer and you'll likely get a complimentary pour. A thick, creamy beige head emerged as soon as my goblet was full, and leaning in to appreciate the smell, I found the nose reminded me of date cake or sticky toffee pudding. Five types of malt including caramel, Munich, and smoked malt, give this dark ale a full body and an ebony color with rosy highlights. Magnum hops are used for bittering, and Saaz to impart aroma. The finish is quite dry.

Ilkka demurred when I asked him about Tumma Hirvi's style, maintaining that he brewed for himself, not judges or beer freaks. "When we are brewing, we don't think about what category it should be," he told me. Depending on the season, farm guests can choose from a number of other unfiltered, unpasteurized beers as well as a meat-heavy menu of Finnish food. Beer-wise, I would've liked to sample Kivipukki (steinbock), American Moose (a pale ale), or French Moose (ale aged in cognac casks) and from the kitchen I might have ordered moose soup or a beer-marinated venison steak. I guess I'll have to try those on my next visit though.

Sure, lots of people think March is the month to look for cheap holidays to Goa or a quick escape to Ireland, but I say Finland deserves to be in the running, too. Bring a warm coat, a good pair of boots, and just in case you want to venture (naked) into a sauna, plenty of self confidence. If you're lucky, you might even see a moose. Travel to Hollolan Hirvi, and you'll definitely be able to taste one.

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