Sima, the May Day Drink of Finland

Every May 1st, Finns celebrate the coming warm season with a glass of their beloved home brew, Sima. I’m Finnish by descent, but had never had Sima until this year. Now that I know how to make it, I’ve brewed 3 or 4 batches in the last couple of months. (May first, Schmay first.)

Sima is quite possibly the easiest home brew you will ever make. Not only because more than likely you have most of the ingredients in your cabinet already, but also because you probably have all the equipment, you don’t have to be quite as careful about sanitizing as with more involved home brew, and, after fermenting, you only have to wait 8 to 12 hours for it to get bubbly enough to drink.

Sign me up!

Sima is brewed with sugar and lemons, and tastes kind of like sparkling lemonade. It is traditionally served with a special kind of doughnut called Tippaleipä, which is sort of like a funnel cake. The traditional recipe for Sima is a nearly non-alcoholic version (by my measurements it reads out at about half a per cent ABV). I’m including that recipe below, as well as a kicked up alcoholic home brew version which you can do with basic ingredients from your kitchen (this one is about 5% ABV).

Trust me, this will become your go-to drink when the weather gets up to the 80s.

Traditional Finnish Sima

  • 4 quarts of water
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 lemons, thinly sliced
  • 1/8 tsp active dry yeast
  • 4 raisins
  • 1/8 cup sugar for carbonating

In a large stock pot, boil the water, then stir in sugars. Add lemon and turn off heat. Cool (use an ice water bath to cool more quickly).

Once the liquid is room temperature, transfer it to a Ball or Mason jar and add the yeast. Cover with Saran Wrap, but make sure to poke a few holes in it so that the CO2 can escape. Allow the mixture to ferment on counter for about 8 to 10 hours. You should start to see little bubbles coming up the side of the jar–good sign!

Sanitize another container (or containers) into which you will transfer the Sima to carbonate. You can do this by running it through a dishwasher, boiling it, or washing it with sanitizing solution. If none of these are options for you (i.e. you live in a tiny studio apartment in New York like my friend International Export Director #1, or you don’t often–or ever–use your dishwasher, like my other friend, Law Student #1), running the container under some blazing hot water from the tap (or boiled on your stove) might do the trick. But I can’t vouch for these strategies since I haven’t tried them.

Take out the lemons and transfer the mixture into the sanitized container with 1/8 cup sugar (I usually boil about 1/8 cup of water to dissolve this before adding it to the mixture). Add raisins. Close the container tightly. In 8-48 hours you should see bubbles collecting and the raisins rising to the top of the container. Once the raisins have risen, it’s done! Pour into a glass and enjoy.

Kicked Up Alcoholic Sima

  • 2 quarts water
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup honey
  • 1 lemon
  • 1/8 tsp yeast
  • 1/8 sugar for carbonating

In a large stock pot, boil the water, then stir in sugar and honey. Boil until fully dissolved. Add lemon and turn off heat. Cool (use an ice water bath to cool more quickly).

Once the liquid is room temperature, transfer it to a Ball or Mason jar and add the yeast. Cover with Saran Wrap, but make sure to poke a few holes in it so that the CO2 can escape. Unlike the low alcohol version, this will ferment for 10 days on your counter. After the first day, take the lemons out or they’ll start to get pretty funky. The longer the brew ferments, the more alcohol it will get and the dryer it will be in taste. You can experiment to see what you prefer in terms of sweetness vs. alcohol ratio. A rule of thumb is that it produces about .5% alcohol each day.

I like this recipe best after 10 days of fermenting. Any more than that and it gets a bit too dry for my taste, and the yeast flavor comes out a bit too much since it’s no longer masked by the sweetness. Also remember that you probably won’t get more than about 6 or 6.5% ABV no matter how long you ferment for, because there’s only so much sugar that can be converted into alcohol.

After 10 days, sanitize another container (or containers) into which you will transfer the Sima to carbonate.

Transfer the mixture into the sanitized container with 1/8 cup sugar (I usually boil about 1/8 cup of water to dissolve this before adding it to the mixture). Add raisins. Close the container tightly. In 8-48 hours you should see bubbles collecting and the raisins rising to the top of the container. Once the raisins have risen, it’s done! Pour into a glass and enjoy.

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35 Comments

Filed under My Home Brews, Recipes

35 responses to “Sima, the May Day Drink of Finland

  1. I am totally going to make this! Thanks for sharing the recipe, Marika!

  2. Sara

    I think my job requires me to make this…

  3. Nancy Parssinen

    Hi, my husband (age 78) was born in Finland and remembers the sima his mother made which was especially welcome by the men when haying. He says “it doesn’t look right-too brown”. I think his mother used only white sugar. I will try it an see if it tastes the way he remembers.

  4. Hi Nancy: The brown version in the pictures is the alcoholic version, which I made with honey and brown sugar. The not-so-alcoholic version with white sugar was a lot lighter in color–a lot “spring”-ier. The alcoholic version can also be made with white sugar, although the alcohol content will be a bit different. Both are great for the warm weather. I would love to hear an update about how your Finnish husband thinks it compares to his own.

  5. Sign me up indeed. We have made our own bitters and are in the process of making a mock aquavit. This sima sounds like a must-try for our next home-made beverage project. Thanks for sharing!

  6. Grey D

    I love the idea of this simple home brewing. How long is the shelf life of this brew? If it is kept refrigerated of course.

    • Grey D: I think the coolest thing about brewing is that at its most basic levels, you can do it with things you typically have at home. I’ve kept Sima in an air tight container for up to a month and it stays carbonated.

  7. I am trying to make rhubarb sima from this Finnish cook book I have. I was googling around to see if I can find more info on it and found your blog (very cool blog btw). It occurred to me that there is no way a traditional Finnish drink would be made with lemons. Even a hundred years ago you would not find lemons in an average finnish village and if you did they would be very pricey and a total delicacy. So it doesn’t make any sense that every resource on the web I find lists lemons. I would think rhubarb or red currants or some sort of other sour berries would be more likely candidates for sima flavoring.

    • Marika Josephson

      Hi Olga,

      Thanks for your comment. I hadn’t thought about that, but you’re probably right. Certainly the everyday person wouldn’t have been making sima with lemons at home.

      Rhubarb is nearing the end of its season here and I actually have a few stalks left. Are you interested in making a virtual batch with me? I’ll post my results on my blog and we can compare. I’ll just do a small batch, enough to fit into a Mason jar.

      I have a book called the Homebrewer’s Garden, which has information about brewing with rhubarb. They suggest putting in about 6 lbs of rhubarb per 5 gallon batch of beer. If I were doing enough to fit into a 2 qt Mason jar, that means I’d use about 1/2 lb of stalks. I’d follow the rest of the directions from the sima recipe substituting rhubarb for the lemon (leaving the rhubarb in the Mason jar throughout the fermentation, as they suggest for rhubarb ale).

      I don’t have red currants, but I do have some sumac berries I saved from the winter. I’ll throw those in and make it a southern Illinois twist on Finnish sima. I’ll be curious to hear how your batch turns out and look forward to comparing notes! And let me know what book you’re using–I haven’t seen a recipe for Finnish sima with rhubarb.

      Cheers,

      Marika

      • Ok, report:
        The raisins were up after few hours, but it wasn’t ready, so no relying on that.
        After day 1, too yeasty
        Day 3 still a bit yeasty and still pretty sweet
        Day 5, a lot dryer and definitely has a lot of alcohol in it (which wasn’t my intention)
        I don’t know how to measure alcohol content, but it’s 2 pm, I had half glass and I am drunk…

      • Marika Josephson

        What kind of yeast did you use? I meant to ask you that the other day. I’ve made sima with regular baking yeast as well as with champagne yeast, and always find that baking yeast gives it a real bready/yeasty character. Champagne yeast is much cleaner, which is why I like it. Not everyone has access to champagne yeast, though (I get mine from a local home brew supplier), so it’s not always possible to use.

        I have a hydrometer that I can use to measure alcohol, which I did when I made my alcoholic Sima. I measured it every day to see how much alcohol was produced, and figured it was about .5% every day, which would make yours about 2.5%. Could be higher, though, depending on the temperature you’re fermenting at and how active your yeast is! I’ll be doing my experiment this weekend and will report the results in a week or so!

      • Marika Josephson

        Okay, here’s my report after a couple of weeks: I accidentally made this with WAY too much sugar. Instead of starting out with 2 quarts of water, I started out with as much water would fit in a 2 quart Mason jar once sugar and rhubarb was added. This made the concentration of sugar to water much too high. It fermented out all the way, but, as happens when it’s warm and yeast get stressed from working so hard to ferment so much sugar, the yeast left some residual off flavors (ethyl acetate is one particularly nasty one) which made it relatively undrinkable. I have no doubt that this experiment will work with rhubarb. The best version might be one with just a bit more sugar than yours, and leaves behind about 3-4% alcohol. At any rate, it sounds like yours turned out nicely. I’ll try this again when I get another batch of rhubarb!

    • Lemons were readily available in Europe already in the 18th century. Rhubarb on the other hand was introduced to Europe over 1000 years after lemons, and they were carefully starting to experiment with rhubarb in food in the 17th century. In Finland rhubarb is quite a new plant.
      The original sima is mead, that is, made of honey and perhaps hops or meadowsweets. In fact, “sima” is a synonym to “honey” in Finnish.

      • Marika Josephson

        Thanks for the history lesson! Do you have any suggestions for books on where to read more about this?

    • I will have to remember to try rhubarb in my next batch… I love old fashion traditional recipes… Heck.. I love anything old fashion (1980s and older… But mostly late 1800s to early 1900s)… I think I was born in the wrong time (1981)

  8. Hi Marika, I already bottled my batch this morning and when I got back home tonight the raisins were up. I didn’t try it yet as it seemed too soon, but will try in the morning (and report).
    The book it is from is the “Moomins Cookbook”
    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Moomins-Cookbook-Sami-Malila-Jansson/dp/190683816X
    I ordered it from England, as soon as it got published, b/c I am a huge fan of the Moomins and Finnish food (at least the food you get in Finland) The book, so far, is a complete disappointment. I think it’s written for little kids, but it doesn’t have photos of the food (which I require to get inspired). But it does have this rhubarb sima recipe in it.
    500 gr rhubarb
    500 gr sugar
    5 liters of water
    1/4 tsp dry yeast
    raisins
    (I used 300 gr rhubarb, 300 gr sugar, 3 liters of water and just over 1/8 tsp of yeast. I only had 3 bottles, so I had to adjust)
    Cut rhubarb to small pieces mix in sugar and boiling water, mix while simmering until sugar dissolves. Cool till warm to the touch and mix in yeast (dissolve in small quantity of liquid first. Leave on the counter over night. Bottle with raisins in the morning.
    I think my yeast is a bit old, so not sure how it will turn out. The book states that it’s ready in about 3 days, so 9 hours sounds too soon. In any case it’s very nice looking pink drink, so hope it tastes good. Here in Vancouver we have rhubarb all summer long. It just doesn’t go to seed for some reason, so if it tastes good I’ll try your alcoholic version.

    This is exciting!

    PS: Note that in this version they don’t say to add sugar at bottling time, so I didn’t.

  9. Lisa

    I’ve read that sima was probably originally made with all honey (a mead), but that when cheaper sugars became available it became more common to make with sugar instead (hence the white/brown combo). As for lemons, they were popular in Northern Europe in the 15th century, so I don’t think it’s a stretch to think the traditional drink probably was made with lemons. I’m brewing some now, ignoring the calendar totally.

  10. René

    thankx for the recipe
    One question comes to mind..Don’t you want a fizzy drink?
    (Hence sealing the container with a tight-sealing lid?) Basically, I want an alcoholic fizzy drink, any tips are appreciated!

    I am sort of mixing the kvas/sima recipes and a pure sima one.
    will tell you out it turned out in a few days..
    peace

    • Marika Josephson

      Hi Rene,

      Yes, you do want a fizzy drink. You’ll have to seal the lid after the fermentation begins and let it sit out on the counter for at least 12 hours before putting it into the fridge. If you’re making the alcoholic version, you have to let it sit out without the lid for over a week or more to let the gas escape and the alcohol build up. Otherwise you’ll build up too much pressure. You only need about 12 hours with the lid on to get it good and fizzy.

      I’m curious to hear how your kvas-sima recipe turns out! Let me know…

      Cheers,

      Marika

      • René

        hi again Marika.. thanks for the tip and reply!
        The first recipe was great! I added some spices,molasses and mint to the first litre and some bread and other kvas ingredients. It was bready tasting..and made one unaltered other liter. That was very good.. the last bit was the best since it had fermented longest.
        I tried making 4 litres which was ruined cause of my mixing bad yeast into it ( instant cr.p) and it was undrinkable. Now I’m making 6 litres of alcoholized version again with brewers’ yeast. What yeast are you guys using?
        I need to try with champagne yeast.
        cheers..thankx for the recipe and feedback! ;)
        i’ll see in 10 days how it turned out ;)
        hugs

      • Marika Josephson

        The kvass mixture sounds great! I’ll have to try something like that this winter.

        I really like to use champagne yeast because it’s got a clean flavor. But you can even use regular baking yeast, which I also do. Some people have access to champagne yeast easily and others don’t. At any rate, regular baking yeast will give you a particularly bready and sour character, especially if you mix in a lot or too much. So if you want something clean and lemony, try to get your hands on champagne yeast.

        Let me know how batch 2 turns out!

        Marika

  11. St_Urho

    VOI JUMALA! I’M A FINN, DESCENDED FROM THAT SWEDE, SURSILL, BORN ON MAY FIRST, AND I NEVER HEARD OF THIS.

  12. Annina

    Stumbled upon your blog while searching for a recipe to make sima here in the USA for my friends :)

    I’m a Finn and my best bet for the lemon question would be that sima, which is nowadays even sold in grocery stores (not nearly as good as home brewed, duh), used to be a special delicacy back in the days. Most Finnish “traditional dishes” ie. Christmas prune jam tarts, prune mousse (with quark & whipped cream), Carelian pastries (rice filled rye pastries… YUM), rice porridge with almonds, glögi (mulled wine) and piparkakut (gingerbread cookies, sort of) are all made with exotic ingredients – that’s exactly what made them special.

    But you are right that citrus fruit would not have been awfully common in post-WWII Finland – my grandmother remembers the first fruit cargo ships coming into port after the war. It was a special day to split an orange with your siblings… Not something we would appreciate as much these days, huh! Drawing from this, I cannot attest any of the above mentioned dishes have been around for centuries ;)

    The other question is with the yeast – have you ever tried making this with real fresh yeast? That’s what we use in all our baking and sima making in Scandinavia. I have previously gotten it from bakeries here in the US but I can’t seem to find it on store shelves? I find that with fresh yeast the flavour seldom turns too “yeasty”. I’ll try to find champagne yeast this time!

    Thanks for a great blog!

    Annina

  13. Annina

    Oh! And with sima you absolutely have to try baking munkki’s!

  14. I am making the traditional sima now (just waiting for the sugar/lemon water to cool so I can start the first ferment). I have never tried (nor have I heard of it), but it sounds so delicious. I will be making the alcohol version starting tomorrow and the “donuts” sometime this week. I am already into kefir and other ferments (recently started within the last month or 2). I am always looking for awesome recipes to try. I have also shared this recipe on my recipe share group on Facebook so my friends can try it for themselveves.

  15. I moved as a child from Finland to the US in 1959, and one of my memories is having some cold sima after a hot sauna, and cooking ring sausages on the hot stones.

    As for the availability of lemons, my mother’s Finnish cookbook printed in 1958 has two recipes for sima. One calls for honey, water, hops, yeast, cinnamon, lemon peel and lemon juice, and the other for water, brown and granulated sugar, lemons, hops and yeast. Also, there is another fermented recipe for a ginger drink, perhaps similar to ginger beer, that calls for water, sugar, ginger, lemons and yeast.

    My first trip back to Finland since I came to the US was in 2010, when we visited many museums. In one exhibit, they they showed a trove of Arabic silver coins dated in the 1100’s that had been found in Finland, showing that there was trade that existed between them long ago.

    Now that I am retired, I delve in many things that I did not have time for and I decided to make sima today, so that it would be ready by May Day. Perhaps I will make tippaleipiä, a type of donut, for May Day, as well.

  16. Lara

    Hi! I’m trying your boozier sima recipe, and was wondering if you just carbonated it in a sterilized mason jar. I’m a canner but not a brewer, and want to make sure I don’t cause any explosions!

    Thanks!

    • Marika Josephson

      I used a sanitized mason jar since I have sanitizer easily accessible at home. If you drink this really quickly (within a week or two) you don’t have to worry too much about sanitizing or sterilizing since there won’t be enough time for bacteria to develop. If you don’t have sanitizer and want to be extra careful, sterilizing won’t hurt! Good luck!

      • Another tip from my brewing experience: To prepare your glass containers and tops, wash them thoroughly with dish soap and warm water. Then, immerse them in a solution of one teaspoon of unscented bleach and cool water for a few minutes. Then rinse thoroughly, and you are ready to bottle your sima. Should you not be immediately ready, place the caps on the glass containers to keep out any bacteria or mold spores from the air. Should unwanted bacteria or mold spores get into your sima, it may adversely affect the flavor.

    • I have dabbled in brewing and canning. Many years ago, I had explosions of disposable, thin beer bottles that used twist-off crown caps. That was in the 1970’s, when home brewing was not yet legal and the instructions were obtained mostly from England for dry malt extract, which could not be obtained here in the US. So it was a matter of throwing together malt extract syrup without knowing the dry equivalent in the recipe, yeast and some sugar for carbonation.

      It seems to me that beer bottles are made to hold the pressure within the bottle, and canning jars are made to maintain a vacuum, while allowing the escape of steam and expanded air during the sterilization process.

      After those considerations, I believe that you will do just fine with canning jars. They are made of thick glass, and if your pressures get too high from an abundance of sugar or other nutrient for the yeast that emits carbon dioxide, it should vent itself through the edges of the lid cap and jar mouth.

      I would not be concern about explosions, but if it does not work your sima may be flat.

  17. Oliver

    Hey all! I’ve been experimenting with this recipe (and others around the net) for about a year, and figured I’d throw in my two cents for posterity’s sake.

    First off, this is the only recipe around that calls for whole, sliced lemons. While it’s a matter of personal taste, I’d strongly recommend going with other recipe’s suggestion of zesting the lemon peel and either cutting off the pith (white part) or simply juicing it into the boiling water. The lemon peel contains all of the fragrant oils, which gives the sima a tangy, refreshing taste. The pith adds some bitterness, but also an astringency that becomes much more apparent as the sima becomes more dry. Remove the pith, and you can let your sima ferment much more completely while avoiding off-flavors.

    Also, while the sima is fermenting, I’d strongly suggest using a plastic or glass bottle. The bigger the bottle, the more predictably the sima will ferment (this is why homebrewers use 5 gallon carboys). I use a 1 gallon jug from Mott’s Apple juice for quick sima, and a 2 liter soda bottle for more alcoholic stuff. Both are fairly resistant to pressure, but you should give the cap a quarter-twist every 12 hours or so to vent off the excess pressure. As long as you tighten the cap before the hissing stops, your sima is relatively safe from outside bacteria and fungi. Also, if you want sparkling sima, it’s best to allow the sima to build up pressure for about 12 hours (or until the bottle is rock-hard) and then put the pressurized bottle into the fridge. The built up CO2 will condense and be absorbed into the sima. I did this for my last batch, and the first glass had a stable, beer-like head that lasted for a good 5 minutes.

    Finally, spices! I’m still playing around with this, but several spices have turned out very well when brewing sima. First off, coriander is an excellent compliment to the lemon, and is the traditional spice used in Belgian Witbier (which is very similar in taste to Sima). Get about 1/2 of a teaspoon per gallon, crack the kernels with the back of a spoon, and toss them in while the sima boils. Cinnamon and ginger also work very well if you are brewing in the colder months. Use about 3-5 cinnamon sticks for the duration of the boil and then remove prior to pitching the yeast, or 1-2 sticks overnight after pitching. The ginger I used was a candy made from crystallized ginger and sugar, and dissolved very well during the boil. Ginger can easily overpower the drink if you are going for balance, so use about a nickel-sized piece per gallon if you don’t want ginger ale.

  18. Kaiserin

    Hello, I was wondering if you could help me. About a week ago I started making my first ever batch of sima, but I think somewhere along the line something has gone wrong. The raisins have yet to raise and it’s been in the fridge at least 3 days. (Was I supposed to refrigerate it on the last step, where you add the sugar to carbonate it?) It has a sortof ‘rotten’ stink to it when opened, and it’s quite bubbly, but I gave it a little taste and it’s way off from sima. Also, there seems to be some sort of ‘silt’ like material collecting on the sides and bottom. (I should note, I followed all the instructions to a T and I also sanitized all the containers used.) I wasn’t able to get every last speck of lemon from the brew when I strained it, so could that have caused problems? I also followed some others’ advice on here and removed almost all the pith on the lemons as well, hoping that would improve the flavor. I’m sad that this happened on my first go, as I was really looking forward to drinking that sima. :(

    • Marika Josephson

      I think the problem sounds like you put into the fridge too early. You should leave it out on the counter first for a day to let the yeast go to work on the sugar. Then put it in the fridge–the raisins should have risen by this point. (Although I’ve also encountered cases where the raisins haven’t risen even though it’s carbonated.)

      It sounds like you’re saying it is carbonated, however, so maybe you did get some fermentation. The smell you’re getting may be from the yeast. The yeast could either be old and therefore giving off a lot of sulfur type aromas; or it could just be the brand of yeast you’re using. Most home brewed Sima recipes call for store-bought bread yeast and even the best of the best and freshest of the freshest yeast is going to have a slightly sour, bready character because it’s really meant for bread and not beer or drinks. I would try a. finding some very fresh bread yeast (remembering that the final product is going to taste and smell a little tart and bready); or b. finding a source for a relatively ubiquitous home brewer’s yeast called Safale US 05. This is one of the cleanest home brewing yeasts and you won’t get those off flavors. It’s also one of the least expensive and one packet will last you over a couple of sima brews. You can find it at almost any home brew store and many online retaliers, like Morebeer.com.

    • Not all of the raisins typically float.

      Was the yeast fresh? Typically, I store mine in the refrigerator. Leaving it in a hot environment can kill it. Also, did you allow the tea and lemon mixture to cool to somewhere below lukewarm before you add the yeast, or you can kill it. Once the yeast is dead, other organisms that exist in the air or in the liquid take over and what you end up with is a roll of the dice.

      Also, sanitizing is very important. That includes the bottles, stoppers, funnels, spoons, and whatever else that comes in touch with the mixture after it has cooled. Typically, I would wash the bottles and then soak or rinse in a bleach solution (about 1 tsp of non-scented and no additive bleach to a gallon of water), and then rinse with clean tap water, to remove the bleach so it doesn’t kill the yeast (a type of bacteria).

      Lastly, did you only use stainless steel, glass, or enameled cooking vessels. Other types of vessels can add react to the acids in the tea and lemon and cause problems.

      Good luck on your next batch.

  19. Thanks so much for this article and all the comments. As a child of 9 or 10 I can remember this being made where we lived in New Brunswick. Fast forward several decades and now I’m in Vancouver and and keen to try a batch of sima. I’m doing a short piece for our Canadian Friends of Finland, Vancouver newsletter – and if I start today I will have enough time for the sima to ferment and still make the deadline – along with some recipes – I do hope it brings back childhood taste memories. Again thanks for all the suggestions and ideas. Now off to hunt for fresh yeast! If you are in Vancouver, BC please consider joining our very small Finnish club – http://www.CanadianFriendsOfFinland.blogspot.com

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