06 October 2012

Autumn Light and Reddish Brews

Down a dirt turnoff on Fasta Åland, on a day when the island's fall foliage was peaking, a bartender named Katarina didn't know what to tell us.  We were in Stallhagen Brewery's countryside pub and I'd just asked her what she had.  "Today…" she said, scanning her shelves and bar, "today I have ten… twelve beers."  Were they all Stallhagen's? "Oh yes," she said.  "They're all our slow beer.  Made right here."  It turned out that she had more than twelve beers, and that the brewery would become the unexpected focus of our day.
We'd set out some hours earlier on a pair of bikes, trying to ride across the island to an old fortress called Kastelholm.  We could have made it to the castle, but stopping for lunch slowed the process.  So did a tour of the brewery.  Tasting Stallhagen's beers brought us to a crawl.  Autumn days are just too short.  Kastelholm will have to wait for another visit.
Åland is a lethargic place anyway (at least in the offseason). A flat landscape of rocks and trees that peters out into the Baltic, the archipelago never feels much higher than the surface of the sea.  Our ride was easy, the way was quiet.  Traveling on back roads and bike paths, we passed windmills and red barns.  There were dwarf sheep in the fields and swaybacked draft horses.  We stopped for a moment near a cow pasture where wide-headed Angus steers watched us.  The leaves have been changing for weeks, but the color had just reached it's full palette.  In a pumpkin field, heavy fruits lay in a tangle of vines.  We were smiling, but pedaling swiftly.
As the weather's cooled, our trip's tenor has changed - from languid to brisk.  Shorter days bring a flash of color and a flurry of movement between darkness.  Setting out by bike on a June morning can feel like the beginning of an epic.  In October, it's a race.
Finland fits into the great beer belt of Europe, in between the clear liquids of hard-edged Russia and the summer-ripened fruits of the south. Warmer climes and Autumn days might bring to mind vin nouveau and federweißer.  In Scandinavia, grapes struggle.  The pub replaces the cafe as the latitude shifts, and the inclination of a tippler is to crawl inside.  Beer soaks up murky light better than wine, a wan companion for brighter skies.
Finns love their beer as much as German's do, or Poles and Czechs.  And, especially in recent years, they've embraced small scale brewing and high-quality products.  Stallhagen is among the breweries that have sprung up to meet a surge in demand, but they're intentionally limited in scope.  Katarina told us, as she brought us into the tank rooms and showed us the bottling plant, that they have a hard time selling large amounts - which is fine with them.  All of their beer is hand made (a point made over and over), unpasteurized and carefully attuned to the seasons.  Åland is a small place, and demand for their product is mostly limited to the the islands.  "The state alcohol stores need promises for a certain number of cases for each outlet," she said, shaking her head.  "That's not how we make beer. We like to sell in small shops and in the bars."
We sat outside on Stallhagen's patio with weak light and dry leaves.  The sun was warm enough when it came, and our faces were warm from the ride, but there was a chilly breeze.  Our food was terrific - the kind of fish that tastes of butter even before it hits the pan.  Pike perch, brought fresh from the docks, was served with roasted potatoes and a thick cream.  It was easygoing pub food, but done with care and pride.  It tasted like something pulled from cold water and cooling earth.
Inside, a man was showing a group of elderly people from Mariehamn (the archipelago capital) how to pour beer and drink it properly.  They sat obediently as he pantomimed reverence and contemplated each sip.
Katarina gave us a taste of a harvest beer that they'd made just for an island farm festival, and another that they were still working on.  This havtorn (sea buckthorn) brew was warm and frothy and still sweet.  "It's at least two weeks from being ready," Katarina said.  The two bubbling carboys sat right in the pub's dining room.  The color was reminiscent of the just-turned fields outside, and the taste was like new jam.
The smell of new beer is so much different than old, stale brew - in contrast to a bar's morningtime funk, the brewery smelled like rising dough and fresh grain.  The seven brewers in galoshes worked with clanging efficiency; bottles rattled, hoses gushed, pumps gargled.  It seemed like lighthearted work, and altogether sober.
As we'd biked home from the brewery, a heavy mist had rolled across the island and bad weather settled in.  By the time we boarded a ferry to the mainland, it was raining.  When we woke up in Helsinki, the weather had worsened.  This was the part of fall that brings people inside. In Helsinki, we found Stallhagen beer at Poseidon bar near the water.  Rain rattled the windows and dead leaves ran the dark gutters.  The evening crowd in those close quarters was a mix of old seafarers and young lovers.
I told the bartender here that we'd been to Stallhagen brewery the day before and she acted surprised.  We were surprised, though, that we'd found it in the capital.  There are only a handful of mainland bars that carry it; Poseidon was just the closest place to get out of the elements.  Drinking the beer - and remembering the color of island leaves - reminded us of another element of autumn in coastal Finland.  When maritime places begin to turn away from their beaches, and the smell of woodsmoke wafts in the air, the terrestrial takes hold over the water.  October seas are unfriendly.  Better to drink in the hops and wheat of summer fields, just now emerging in the glass.

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