Sima- Finnish Fermented Lemon May Day Drink

What would you say if I told you that with just a couple lemons, some sugar, yeast and water you could be enjoying a tasty home-brewed, slightly alcoholic drink tomorrow night?  Pretty impressive, right?

A number of my friends have gotten into either beer or wine making.  I’m thinking I’d rather just stick with the Finnish technique of adding some yeast to some flavored sugar water… that seems a whole lot easier and a whole lot cheaper.

This is traditionally served in Finland on May Day (along with crisp donuts called May Day Fritters, aka tippaleivat).  Doesn’t drinking some homemade brew and eating donuts sound a whole lot cooler than dancing around a May pole?  Score one for the Finns.

Also, I’m not quite sure if the raisins provide any flavor or only act as an indicator to tell when the drink is ready.  The raisins spent all of Sunday doing liquid gymnastics, rising and falling for hours before finally settling at the top.  Pretty cool stuff.

Oh and the taste?  Pretty great.  If you like hard apple or pear cider, this should be right up your alley.


Sima- Finnish May Day Lemon Drink

Yield: Approximately 1 gallon


* 14 cups water
* 1 cup brown sugar
* 1 cup plus 4 teaspoons sugar, divided
* 2 lemons, washed and thinly sliced
* 1/8 teaspoon yeast
* 16-20 raisins


In a large pot, bring the water to a boil. Add the brown sugar, 1 cup of the white sugar and stir to dissolve. Add the lemon slices, stir and let sit until lukewarm. Transfer the liquid to a nonreactive (non-metallic) container and add the yeast and stir. Partially cover and let sit for 8 hours or overnight. Tiny bubbles should have formed around the perimeter of the liquid.

Strain the liquid into sterilized bottles. Place one teaspoon of sugar per quart of liquid as well as 4-5 raisins. Cork tightly. Let stand at room temperature until the raisins have all risen to the top of the bottles. Refrigerate until use, letting out some of the pressure from the bottles from time to time, if necessary.

Adapted from The Finnish Cookbook

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26 Responses to “Sima- Finnish Fermented Lemon May Day Drink”

  1. #
    Jeff Rasmussen — January 14, 2012 at 8:54 am

    Cate, you find the best recipes! I would love to try this one sometime!


    • CATE — January 14th, 2012 @ 7:43 pm

      Thanks Jeff! It's super easy to make- definitely give it a shot. I also have (hopefully) another similar drink in the pipeline…


  2. #
    Miss Meshow — January 17, 2012 at 12:46 am

    I'll have to add this to my wishlist of ferments to make. Sounds delicious! Where'd you pick up those bottles?


    • CATE — January 17th, 2012 @ 5:46 am

      I actually got the bottles at Ross Dress for Less… they were so cheap ($2 or $3 per bottle) that I stocked up :)


    • Miss Meshow — January 19th, 2012 @ 2:47 am

      Nice! I want to get some for my kombucha, but at the wine supply place you have to buy a whole case. $$$. Plus these are a lot more stylish!


    • Anonymous — April 27th, 2012 @ 12:01 pm

      if you can find grolsch beer at a grocery store or specialty beer store you get the grolsch flip top bottles and the beer, around $1.20 a bottle


  3. #
    Eat Outside the Bag — January 17, 2012 at 2:54 am

    MMMM, I've been wanting to get more into this. I made last year with some ginger in it and it was so tasty. I must make a few of these as lemons are in season and I'll be ordering a box soon. Wonder if I could make a grapefruit version?


    • CATE — January 17th, 2012 @ 5:48 am

      I'm sure a grapefruit version would be great too! I definitely plan on experimenting with some other citrus since this was so easy, so inexpensive and so good :)


  4. #
    rnfryrlife — January 17, 2012 at 4:04 pm

    do you drink this plain or add in a mixer?


    • CATE — January 18th, 2012 @ 4:22 am

      I drank it plain… I don't know the exact alcoholic content but it's definitely not very strong. Lighter and less alcohol than a hard cider for sure, although it seems to get more potent the longer you keep it.


      • John V. — February 27th, 2014 @ 6:01 pm

        Sima usually has an alcohol content of 2-3%, but this can vary quite a bit.

  5. #
    Nanna — January 20, 2012 at 10:10 pm

    Hi Cate!
    Not that anybody has ever measured the alcohol content, but as a Finn I would say the alcohol content is next to nothing, at least when drank within a week from when it is ready, (as it should, later you just get the runs…, sorry =) ). This is a favorite of every family member from toddlers to grannies and although considerd some what a “drinking nation” even we do not serve alcohol to our children.

    But sima makes a great mixer with vodka and ice.

    Great project you have here!


    • CATE — January 21st, 2012 @ 3:46 am

      Ha! Good to know that it should be consumed within one week :) I guess I'm a lightweight since I seemed to be feeling it just by itself… I'm sure those with a higher tolerance would love it with some vodka tossed in! Thanks so much for writing in :)


  6. #
    Ian — January 22, 2012 at 5:56 pm

    Hi Cate!
    The drink looks delicious, and I cannot wait to try it!
    Just a question, though: what type of yeast did you use?
    Was it a specialized brewers' yeast, or straight-up bakers' yeast?


    • CATE — January 22nd, 2012 @ 10:03 pm

      Hi Ian- This time I just used plain old baker's yeast (worked perfectly fine)… but if I can get myself to a specialty store sometime soon I'd also like to try it with brewer's yeast and champagne yeast. Hope you like it… with whatever yeast you use :)


  7. #
    CookieGoddess — January 27, 2012 at 9:17 am

    As a Finn I've actually made this quite a few times. And yes, we use regular yeast on it :) What I usually prefer to do after washing the lemons throughoutly is to peel off the yellow rind, use that in the sima and then squeeze in the lemon juice. The white bits can give a bit bitter taste! (But to be honest, it really shouldn't be enough for people to notice)
    I also use limes and possibly fresh ginger to spice it up – but that's not really the traditional version anymore ;)


    • CATE — January 28th, 2012 @ 4:29 am

      Thanks for the tips! And I'm going to have to try your lime and ginger version this weekend… it sounds amazing :)


  8. #
    Anonymous — January 31, 2012 at 8:35 pm

    Granny used to make this all summer, starting from may day. She always had it for use children to drink and most of us prefered it instead of lemonade. It was in 1980s.

    If I remember correctly you can detect from raisins, when it is ready. When they come up from the bottom, that is. Traditonally one can use all brown sugar (if you like stronger taste) and a bit molasses as well.

    There is also another version called “Louhisaaren juoma” or “Marskin Sima” that does not use raisins, but instead it has plenty of blackcurrant leaves and all white sugar. (Plenty means at least 2-3 cups in your recipe).


  9. #
    Jordan Knarr — August 9, 2012 at 6:17 pm

    This looks so tasty, I'm bookmarking it to put on my list!

    Which wouldn't warrant a comment, but I see that I might be the only brewer to have come across it, so I just wanted to share –

    2 cups of sugar in a gallon of water will get you to about 6% abv. That's if the yeast eat all the sugar, leaving you with a really zippy and possibly gross dry lemon water concoction (which would probably take a week or two outside of a refrigerator.) The sugar in the raisins is negligible and they're more for the other stuff in them (nitrogen for instance!)

    If you let it sit too long and it gets dry, it'd probably be really good mixed with a lemon-lime soda as that would add sugar and dilute it (if mixed 50/50) to 3% again.

    Thanks again for a cool recipe :)


    • CATE — August 10th, 2012 @ 3:21 am

      Awesome- thanks so much for your comment and feedback Jordan! You clearly have a much better understanding and grasp of the brewing process than I do :)


    • Karly — May 21st, 2016 @ 12:31 pm

      We don’t brew but we do make wine and I’m very interested in trying this so I’m wondering what a more experienced brewer thinks of my idea. We just picked up some small jars here in Korea that have one-way valves to create an anaerobic environment. Would that work instead of the corked bottles or does it need to be aerobic?


  10. #
    John V. — February 27, 2014 at 5:59 pm

    I spent a year in Finland as an exchange student mack in 1988-89 and just this year I made sima for the very first time. I talked with friends in Finland extensively when before making this, and one thing that I would recommend to you is not to use lemon slices. Instead, peel off the skin of the lemon, then cut off the white pith and dice up the lemons in a bowl and crush them a bit. Add the lemon peel, lemon chunks, and juice in with the sugar. You do have to strain it before bottling, though. Next time you make this I would suggest giving this method a try. You will get, in my opinion, a more pleasant lemon flavor.

    PS Just discovered your blog and am enjoying it!


    • Off The Cuff Cooking — April 28th, 2014 @ 4:47 pm

      My mom just made Sima today from her recipe, and she does what John V and someone else above recommended– first shave off the zesty rind with a veggie peeler, and then carefully slice off all the pith, and then just slice up the actual fruit. She said the pith will make it bitter. She lets hers sit in the pot for 24 hrs at room temp to really absorb all the flavors from the citrus, and then transfers it to jars, adds a pinch of sugar to each one and a coupe of raisins.


      • Cate — October 4th, 2014 @ 6:38 pm

        Thanks for the info!

  11. #
    Jeremy — April 29, 2014 at 6:45 am

    Drink tastes really really good. Me and my friends celebrate Beltane this week and I was looking for a low alcohol content drink to make. This works beautifully and I plan on serving it with my fried Honeycakes. This is the first recipe I have tried from this site and I am definately gonna try some more. Thanks for the great recipe.


    • Cate — October 4th, 2014 @ 6:37 pm

      So glad you liked it Jeremy :)


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