Sima: Finnish Sparkling Lemon 'Mead'

Sima is a traditional Finnish spring beverage made to celebrate the May Day festival Vappu. 

After reading several modern recipes for Sima, I've determined that it can't technically be called a mead, as mead is by definition fermented honey-water. Nearly every recipe I've come across has called for sugar as the primary fermentation and sweetening agent, with honey or molasses sometimes mentioned as additional ingredients. Traditionally, this was made with honey rather than sugar, but you can use either (or both). 

Regardless of what you call it, Sima is a light, refreshing beverage perfect for ushering in the spring. Essentially, it is a lightly fermented sparkling lemonade. As an added benefit, it's insanely simple and quick to make. The traditional recipe calls for:

  • 1 gallon (4 liters) water 
  • 1/2 cup (110 grams) brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup (100 grams) white (granulated) sugar
  • 2 medium-sized lemons (or one large lemon)
  • 25 raisins
  • A pinch of yeast (brewer's or bread)

Some recipes call for as much as 1 1/2 cups each (300 grams) of sugar, but for the most part, the above seems to be a good base recipe. Making it like this with no variations might work for some people but I found the tartness from the lemons a bit overpowering. After a bit of trial and error, I recommend starting with these measurements and ingredients and then adjusting to taste:

  • 1 gallon (4 liters) water 
  • 1/2 cup (110 grams) brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup (100 grams) white (granulated) sugar
  • 1/2 cup (170 grams) honey
  • 1/2 cup (170 grams) molasses
  • 1/2 cup (170 grams) sorghum
  • 2 medium-sized lemons (or one large lemon)
  • 25 raisins
  • A pinch of yeast (brewer's or bread)

**Note: I used this page for converting my measurements from cups to grams. Please be sure to double-check my calculations if you use the metric system. 

The honey, molasses, and sorghum can all act as substitutes for one another. Also, I'll sometimes add them (or a bit more sugar) after fermentation has commenced to achieve my preferred level of sweetness. I've also substituted ginger bug for yeast, but found it didn't get fermenting as strongly as I would have liked, so went ahead and added a pinch of bread yeast. You can go as crazy as you want with additional flavorings. Fruit juice, cooking spices, you name it. There's something to be said for a simple, nicely balanced sparkling lemonade, though.  

Now, it's time to make some Sima. Here's how:

  1. Warm water to aid with dissolving sugars. If using tap water, bring it to a boil and allow it to cool to room temperature to remove any chlorine (which can hinder fermentation).
  2. Scrape off outer yellow lemon rind (zest) with a lemon zester or small, sharp knife. Peel off and discard the inner white rind.
  3. Place zest, brown and white sugar, and lemons in a 1-3 gallon fermentation vessel.
  4. Add small amounts of honey, molasses, and/or sorghum to taste. Save the rest to adjust the flavor once fermentation commences.
  5. Be sure the must (unfermented mead/wine) is at room temperature or a bit warmer (60°-80° Fahrenheit or 15°-27° Celsius), and add yeast or ginger bug.
  6. Add 25 raisins, cover the vessel with a loose lid, cheesecloth, or dish towel, and stir several times a day.
  7. Once you see clear signs that fermentation has commenced (light bubbling, fizzing, and sometimes a bit of yeasty foam), wait a day or two and then add more sweetener until you are pleased with the flavor.
  8. You can drink it now with a bit of fermentation fizz, but carbonating it will add some real pop (whizz-bang, pizzazz, etc.).
  9. To carbonate, strain out the solids with a siphoning tube or by pouring through a strainer. The type of bottle you use and the time you allow it to ferment are critical, as pressure will build up fast. I prefer swing-top / flip-top bottles, as they have thick glass and can easily be checked and “burped” to avoid excess carbonation buildup. You can also put them in used plastic soda bottles. You can gauge the level of pressure with these by noting how much (or little) give results from pressing in on the plastic.
  10. Add 1-2 raisins and 1/2 tsp. of white sugar to each bottle and allow the bottles to sit at room or cellar temperature for 12-24 hours. Place them carefully in a refrigerator to slow down fermentation and allow them to chill and age for 2-5 days. The raisin can be used as an indicator that carbonation is complete. Once you see one or more raisins float to the top of the bottle, you’re ready to go.
  11. Take each bottle out of the refrigerator with a towel wrapped around it and open it outside, pointed away from yourself, children, pets, and unwary passers-by. Have a glass on hand. Most times the bottle will open with a loud pop and little more. Other times, you may get a gusher, which is why it’s important to have a glass on hand.
  12. If the flavor is too yeasty or lemony, mix in some fresh honey or simple syrup (sugar dissolved in hot water and then cooled) into the glass.
  13. Caution: DO NOT forget about the bottles! While they may be fine in the refrigerator for a while, they have the potential to explode, as they will continue to ferment and carbonate while in the bottle.

With the proper precautions and a little fine-tuning of the recipe, this makes for an excellent spring and summer beverage. While it can be fermented longer to produce alcohol, it is intended to be a lightly fermented family beverage. If drank within a week or two of starting the brewing process, it will have no more than trace amounts of alcohol, if any.

So, go make yourself some Sima, work up a sweat in the garden, grab a book, and relax with a refreshing glass of delicious lemony fizz!

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Steve Cole (Stickboy)

May 24th, 2015 at 1:27pm

Sounds like a good beverage for lounging in the shade after a hard day of gardening, or if you're like me, a hard day of *thinking* about gardening but looking for shiny rocks in the creek instead.

Any plans to try the traditional Finnish beer we read about a while back? (I can't remember what it's called).

Jereme Zimmerman (RedHeadedYeti)

May 26th, 2015 at 8:41am

I still have plans to make Sahti, but not the ingredients. To make it by the traditional method, you pretty much have to use Finnish baker's yeast and juniper twigs. Haven't found the yeast yet, but I plan on making some spruce and juniper berry beers and meads using ingredients I plan on ordering from here: