It was a long way to travel for a pint.
I flew from the United Kingdom to Stockholm, then took a seven-hour ferry journey to the Åland Islands, an archipelago of 6,700 granite islands scattered across the sea between Sweden and Finland. In the pastel-hued capital of Mariehamn I boarded a local bus. It wound past dense glades of pine trees and red wooden houses with snow-carpeted roofs, before dropping me off at a deserted hotel in the small hamlet of Godby.
I had come all this way to taste one of the oldest beers in the world.
Back in 2010, several divers discovered a shipwreck in the Baltic Sea surrounding the Åland Islands. Thanks to its treacherously shallow waters and hidden, low-lying granite islets, the area is notorious for shipwrecks. But this one was different – it contained unexpected treasures. Spices, olives, preserved fruits, and best of all, almost two hundred bottles of champagne, which experts estimated had been bottled in 1839 or 1840.
While bringing up the haul from the wreck, one of the divers, Christian Ekström, discovered five smaller bottles. When he reached the surface one of them cracked, and he tasted the liquid that leaked onto his hands. It was beer.
The beer, it soon turned out, was 170 years old, which at that time made it the oldest ever discovered.
As it so happened, Ekström ran a small gastropub and brewery known as Stallhagen. Once he’d tried the beers, he was determined to reproduce the recipe.
After securing the rights to develop the beer, Stallhagen contacted the Leuven Institute for Beer Research, in Belgium, and asked them to reverse-engineer the beer. The result: Historic Beer 1843, one of Stallhagen’s bestselling beers, and the one I had come all this way to try.
I was picked up from my hotel in Godby Jan Wennstrom, the current CEO of the gastropub and brewery.
“Thanks for the lift,” I said.
“That’s alright. The weather is bad this time of year.”
It was an understatement. The previous evening the temperature had plummeted to -15˚C, and the water in the bays had frozen over. Outside, it was still bone-numbingly cold.
“Most people come here during summer, right?” I asked.
“Yes. For the sailing and the beaches. Lots of businesses shut over the winter. We try and persuade more restaurants and hotels to stay open. Then there will be more for the tourists to do in the off-season.”
As we drove, Jan told me a little bit more about himself. His father’s family was from the islands.
“There are five generations of Wennströms buried in the cemetery of Vårdö,” he explained.
Jan was born in Helsinki but spent his summers in the old family estate on the islands. After gaining degrees in both business and law, he spent twenty years living and working abroad. In 2010 he was working for a hotel and resort in New York, when he heard by chance that Stallhagen was looking for a CEO and put in a call.
“The rest is history,” he said.
Jan turned off the main road and we travelled down a straight track towards the gastropub. On either side of us, snowbound fields unfolded under wide, darkening skies.
“Stallhagen means stable pasture. This is where the Swedish King once kept his cattle,” Jan explained.
We pulled up outside the gastropub.
“Look, there’s a lake down there,” Jan said, gesturing at an ice-covered expanse of water. “And there’s the stage next to it, where we have concerts in the summer.”
I looked at the bandstand buried under several feet of snow, and shivered.
Jan introduced me to the Pub Manager, Johanna, a smiling woman who’d been born in the Åland Islands, and the three of us crunched back down the path towards the brewery.
“We make all of our beer on site. And we adhere to a slow-brewing philosophy,” Jan explained. “That means we give the beer the time it needs to brew, and we take care to use quality materials.”
Upstairs, we looked down through the viewing window at the fermenting tanks on the brewery floor.
“At one sitting we can produce 7,500 litres of beer,” Jan explained. “When the brewery first started in 2004, we were producing 20,000 litres of beer a year. Now it’s closer to a million litres, although we plan to expand to 1.5 million for 2020.”
“Where do you sell the beer?” I asked.
“Mainly locally – the islands, mainland Sweden and Finland. But we’re also starting to export to Japan and Belgium.”
Jan proceeded to explain the brewing process to me. In its most basic terms, malted grain is added to hot water in a process called mash conversion, which breaks starch down into sugars. The mash is then lautered – a process which removes a sweet liquid known as wort – boiled, has hops added, and is fermented and cooled.
“We use ingredients from the islands to make all our beers. Our most popular, Honey Beer, is made with locally sourced honey. All the leftover grain from our brewing we give to the farmer down the road. He uses it as cattle feed. It’s not alcoholic, of course,” Jan explained.
“And then we use the farmer’s beef in the gastropub,” Johanna added. “We follow the New Nordic Kitchen Manifesto – seasonal, local and sustainable.”
After checking out the brewery, we headed back to the warm, wood-panelled interior of the gastropub. From where we were sitting, it was possible to see through a window into the kitchen, where several chefs were hard at work.
“They’re preparing food for our beer and tapas tastings later. Would you like to try some?” Johanna asked.
I’d only had lunch an hour ago but was far too greedy to refuse.
Unfortunately for me, the tapas came in pretty large portions.
Snow drifted past the windows as I tucked into a plate of homemade sausages, served with potatoes and an orange sauce made with locally grown sea buckthorn berries.
“These sausages are our speciality. They are homemade, using beef from the cattle that eat the brewery’s leftover grain,” Johanna explained.
The sausages were delicious, especially when paired with a Stallhagen US Red Ale, a fresh-tasting copper-coloured ale.
Afterwards, I was treated to a second pairing; Twist & Shout (a seasonal, coffee-flavoured stout) served with an Åland pancake, a sweet speciality several inches thick.
“Some people make it with semolina, but we prefer to use rice,” Johanna explained. “You normally have the pancake with coffee, which is why we serve it with this stout.”
Indeed, the bitter nutty notes of the beer paired perfectly with the sweetness of the pancake.
Finally, I had a chance to try what I had come all the way here for: Historic Beer 1843.
Jan set an elegant green bottle down in front of me, corked and stoppered like a champagne bottle.
“People see it as a special occasion beer. They order it when they’re celebrating,” he explained, alluding to the bottle’s appearance.
I poured some into a glass. It was a pale amber colour. I had been expecting something much darker and thicker. The glass felt cold against my hands as I lifted it to my lips. The taste was surprisingly subtle and refined.
“It’s not at all how I expected,” I said, taken aback.
“People are often surprised by the taste. They don’t connect it with the story. It’s almost modern,” Jan said. “But they didn’t use hops to brew beer back then, which is why it has a light taste.”
It had never occurred to me that I might have preconceived ideas about what constituted a traditional or a contemporary taste. But it was true – I associated adjectives such as ‘light’, ‘crisp’ and ‘zingy’ with contemporary food and drink. The oldest beer in the world wouldn’t be out of place with today’s light, low-alcohol lagers.
Once I was stuffed full of food and beer, Jan drove me back through to my hotel. The snow was an eerie blue colour in the fading light, the pine trees stark silhouettes. It was strange to think that one of the most technologically advanced craft breweries in Europe was located in such a remote place. Stallhagen was a brewery that embraced modern processes while championing local ingredients and traditional history.
Tomorrow, I’d be taking a two-and-a-half-hour ferry to Kökar, a remote island in the outer archipelago. I’d be there for the next month, battling against wind and snow to explore the island.
It was going to be a long journey.
I was glad I had stopped for some refreshment on the way.