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  • Writer's pictureCalgary Brewery Tour Guy

What is Raw Ale And Can You Find it in Calgary by YYCTOURS Calgary Brewery Tours

Updated: Dec 1, 2023

What is Raw Ale And Where Can You Find it in Calgary?

Raw Ale is a term used not to describe a style of beer like I.P.A. or Pilsner, but as a reference to the very risky ‘no-boiling’ technique used when making it. Long before boil-kettles, European farmers in the Middle Ages were using this method to ‘home brew’ with their own grains and selected ingredients from the forests like juniper and rosemary. These ‘recipes’ have been handed down through generations but is generally not commercially available. Now, Raw Ale is seeing a bit of a resurgence and YYCTOURS is here to share a little bit about what a Raw Ale is, and whether or not you can find it in Calgary.

A glass of Sahto from Stony Slope brewing in Calgary by YYCTOURS YYC Beer tour

When it comes to Raw Ales, Farmhouse is the name given to Belgian and French Ales, Sahti is what they call it in Finland, Koduõlu in Estonia, Gotlandsdricke in Sweden, Maltøl in Norway and Kaimiškas in Lithuania. Today, most of the time when you enjoy a Farmhouse Ale, the name ‘Farmhouse’ is only a nod to the ancient techniques used by French and Belgian farmers and it does not mean the beer was actually made with the same technique. In fact, most Farmhouse Ales today are not considered “Raw Ales” as they use modern production practices including full boils. The others, like Sahti, have practically disappeared albeit for a few regionalized Scandinavian brewing clubs. As such, finding these beers can be very difficult. One of the major reasons for this is that the Raw Ale’s no-boil production process does not allow it to be stored well and it must be consumed relatively fresh, making export nearly impossible.

Today, pretty much every beer you drink has been boiled. Boiling wort is normally required for the following reasons: It extracts, isomerizes and dissolves the hop α-acids; It stops enzymatic activity and (sterilizes) kills bacteria, fungi, and wild yeast; It coagulates undesired proteins and polyphenols and evaporates undesirable harsh hop oils, sulfur compounds, ketones, and esters; It promotes the formation of melanoidins and caramelizes some of the sugars; and it evaporates water vapor, condensing the wort to the proper volume and gravity. A minimum of a one hour boil is usually recommended for making quality beer.

With Raw Ales, there is no boil, so the beer is not sanitized, however, it is pasteurized. Pasteurization will remove microorganisms, but their spores can remain, meaning that brewers have to be extremely diligent in ensuring that all equipment they use is fully sanitized at every step of the way.

Traditionally with Raw Ales, as farmers could not afford metal kettles, they used wooden barrels and vats which could not be heated to full boil if at all. Instead, the farmers/brewers heated stones and dropped them into the water and grain to create their wort. The outcome was a far more grainy and cereal tasting wort than modern times. The lack of a boil also kept many of the natural polyphenols and proteins which often provides a thicker, fuller, smooth-bodied end product. When adding hops, which need to be boiled to dissolve hop acids, the farmers would boil them off to the side and simply add them in later in the process as a sort of hop tea.

In modern brewing, although brewers do not have to use wooden equipment, they do have ways to emulate the ancient recipes by using lower temperatures or boiling a small percentage of the wort. However, there is always a real risk of several things that could go wrong. The Raw Ale is susceptible to souring as there is more ‘food’ in the beer and it can develop unwanted ‘off-flavours’ if not produced or stored properly.

A glass of Lithuanian Raw Ale Beer at Bottlescrew Bills in Calgary by YYC Beer tours

In Calgary, there are a few breweries that offer traditional Farmhouse Ales as regular menu items and not as one-offs. Bottlescrew Bills, one of the oldest pubs in Calgary recently opened a brewery (and are already expanding) that features Lithuanian Farmhouse Ale. Sahti, the traditional Finnish Farmhouse Ale, is available at Stony Slope Brewing who focus on ancient and forgotten styles of beer (as of this writing, Stony Slope also has Maltøl). In both cases, old world techniques are used with modern equipment and local ingredients to arrive at a unique beer that is extremely rare, which in our opinion, makes it worth trying for the first time.

See our reviews of Stony Slope and Bottlescrew bills here.

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