Monday, October 22, 2007

Sima - Finnish Mead: An Interview with Michael Fairbrother of Moonlight Meadery

When I found this recipe for Sima (see below) in the “Bicentennial Cookbook – Some Old, Some New”, its English title was “a refreshing summer drink”. As I read it over, the ingredients looked a lot like a fermented beverage to me, given the hops and yeast. In fact, the Finfood web site indicates that Sima is a sparkling wine or Finnish homemade mead, which is typically drunk during picnics on May Day or “Vappu”.

When I read that Sima is considered to be a mead, I knew that I had to contact Michael Fairbrother , owner of Moonlight Meadery and a New Hampshire homebrewing authority. Michael is a wealth of knowledge on both mead and beer, and I was sure he could provide me with some insights on the recipe and also give me more information about how Sima can be made safely by today’s home cooks. Here is the conversation that Michael and I had about Sima.

I see that Sima is made with white and brown sugars. I thought that mead was always made with honey. Is there a broader definition of mead drinks?

Mead by definition means a fermented beverage whose base ingredient is honey. I have found several references that say that Sima is Finnish for mead. My guess is that honey was originally used in the making of Sima. However, honey tends to be expensive – people likely looked for less expensive alternatives and ended up substituting white and brown sugars instead.

One unique thing about the recipe is the fermentation time – it is quite short. A week of fermentation will result in a carbonated, lightly alcoholic beverage. The lemons will contribute citric acid, which will give the Sima a zesty flavor.

The hops are an interesting ingredient, as well, in the recipe. Hops serve as an anti-bacterial agent and help to preserve the beverage. When Sima was made by the Finnish immigrants in the United States, they likely used fresh, whole flower hops.

When the Sima is bottled, the yeasts attach to the raisins (a source of sugar). As fermentation continues with the sugars from the raisins, carbon dioxide is produced and this causes the raisins to float.

Where can a home brewer buy or order fresh hops?

There are several homebrewing stores which may have or can order hops, as well as online resources like Fresh Hops . Brewers measure ingredients by weight, not by volume. So, a quarter cup of fresh, whole leaf hops equates to about 0.125 ounce. Hops may not really be a critical ingredient in Sima – there are other Sima recipes which do not use hops. Based on the recipe I don’t think they will add any particular flavor to the beverage. (Note: Here is a link to Michael’s web page with a list of homebrewing stores)

If a home cook wants to try making Sima, what type of yeast should they use? Regular baker’s yeast, like one would use to make bread? Or are there special types of yeast that should be used for home brewing purposes?

In fermented beverages, yeast is used to control the flavor and aroma. Baker’s yeast can be used and is probably what the originally recipe was based on. However, the home brewer could upgrade to a different type of yeast for the Sima and obtain a completely different flavor and aroma. For example, there are different types of yeasts which are used for red and white wines, beers, and meads.

Are there tips that you would recommend for making Sima safely at home? Where would a home cook get bottles and caps for the recipe? Can you re-use bottles that other types of drinks have been bottled in?

No pathogens can grow in a fermenting liquid. However, it is important to sanitize the container in which you ferment the Sima and also to sanitize the bottles that you will use for the Sima. Sanitizing is not the same as sterilization. To effectively sanitize use 2 oz. Bleach (non-scented) per five gallons water and allow 10 min. contact time, then rinse thoroughly. Everything that will come in contact with the Sima (spoons, fermentation container, bottles, caps, etc.) should be sanitized.

Because this recipe for Sima uses hops, it is important to use brown glass bottles. You can re-use clean, sanitized beer bottles. Green and clear glass bottles are not suitable for beverages with hops – the light affects hops and can make the beverage smell like a skunk.

Caps and a capping tool can be purchased at a home brewing store.

Why do you think the recipe calls for fermenting the drink in an enameled pot?

You definitely wouldn’t want to ferment a beverage in an aluminum or copper pot – the metals would leach out into the liquid – that’s probably why the recipe indicates that an enameled pot should be used. Today, you would be fine using a stainless steel pot, or even better a clean, sanitized plastic bucket. You can place a lid loosely on top of the bucket or pot during the fermentation phase. You could also invest in an “air lock” – this will allow carbon dioxide to pass out from the fermentation bucket, but it will not allow air to get into the container.

How long will this type of drink keep, before it spoils? Should it be refrigerated?

In terms of the fermentation and chilling process, the colder the liquid, the slower the fermentation will occur. Once the Sima is bottled, I would not refrigerate it immediately – that could slow or even prevent the fermentation. I would bottle it and leave it at room temperature for a day. Then I would move it to the refrigerator. As I mentioned, this is a lightly fermented beverage. It should be consumed fairly quickly after the raisins have risen. I would recommend that this beverage be consumed in less than a week’s time, to prevent the yeast from fermenting all the sugars in the Sima. The recipe makes a pretty large quantity of Sima – you could scale it down to make a smaller amount.

Many thanks to Michael Fairbrother for this interview. Michael can be reached by email at

The Original Recipe: Sima Recipe (A Refreshing Summer Drink - Finnish)
source: “Bicentennial Cookbook – Some Old, Some New” (St. Paul Lutheran Church, Gloucester)

10 pints water
1 ¼ cups sugar
1 ¼ cups brown sugar
¼ cup hops
¼ tsp. yeast
1 lemon
Sugar and raisins for each bottle

Put the grated lemon rind, sugar, hops and boiling water in an enameled pot. Cover with a lid. When the water is cool enough to touch, add the sliced lemon and the crumbled yeast. Cover again with lid and leave in warm room until the following day, then strain the Sima. In each bottle put a couple of raisins and 1 tsp sugar and fill with Sima. Seal the bottles and store in a cold place. Sima will be ready in about one week’s time, when the raisins have risen to the surface.

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