Joe Sixpack: Braggot beer defined

Posted: June 17, 2011

LAST COLUMN, I mentioned that one of my favorite beers of Philly Beer Week was the homemade braggot that George Hummel of Home Sweet Homebrew served at Opening Tap. That had a few of my readers scratching their heads, "Brag-what?"

It's not a common beer style, and some will argue it's not really beer at all.

Braggot is beer mixed with mead. (I'll assume you already know that mead is fermented honey.)

It's an ancient drink that, over the centuries, has been known as bragget or bracket or braggat or a seemingly endless variety of other spellings. Like all matters involving the hazy history of alcohol, there is debate over its true origin.

The word seems Welsh (brag = malt, got = honeycomb, say some researchers) and, indeed, there are records of 13th-century laws that demanded freemen to pay the king of Wales enough braccat to fill a bathtub.

Well before that, the Irish claim they were drinking something called brogoit. And no one knows how long the English celebrated Bragot Sunday, a day in which mugs of the sweet drink were raised in the midst of Lent.

What did it taste like? We can only salivate with desire when Chaucer writes in "The Miller's Tale" of a voluptuous, adulterous young wife whose mouth was "sweete as bragot."

At its finest, this drink would've been brewed with herbs and spices and served at celebrations and holy days. Ian Spencer Hornsey's A History of Beer and Brewing describes a medieval "upmarket" version made with ginger, cinnamon, galingale and cloves.

More commonly, a tavern keeper would've simply mixed ale and mead - perhaps as a specialty drink, or possibly to cheat a patron who had ordered a more expensive cup of pure mead.

I've tried the latter method on my own, and it's not half bad - a bittersweet mingling of honey and hops. Mixing your own is certainly a lot easier than what James Taylor of Atlantic Brewing in Bar Harbor, Maine, has to go through to make his Brother Adam's Bragget Ale.

Taylor makes four 15-barrel batches over two days, each requiring 35 gallons of honey. "You ought to see the size of the squeeze bottles we use," he joked. "I never knew they made them that big!"

He spends the days cooking wort, then hoisting buckets of honey. "It's physically a busy day with lots of lifting," Taylor said. "It's a sticky day - you get a hell of a sugar rush just licking your fingers."

It takes more than six months of fermentation, of a gentle mingling of honey and hops. Taylor describes the finished glass as somewhere between mead and barley wine, between the kiss of honey and the bite of hops.

Hummel's version wasn't quite so hoppy, finishing smooth and fruity. He's helpfully included an easy recipe for a sparkling braggot in his new text, The Complete Homebrew Beer Book (Robert Rose, $24.95).

The recipe (check my website below for details) calls for 5 pounds of clover, orange-blossom or wildflower honey, and then three months of conditioning. So it's a bit pricey and you'll have to have a bit of patience before giving it a taste.

While you're waiting, give one of these a try:

  • Dansk Mjød Old Danish Braggot (Denmark): Brewed with ginger.
  • Dogfish Head Midas Touch (Milton, Del.): Technically, it's not a braggot because it's a mixture of malt, honey and grapes.
  • Widmer Brothers Reserve Prickly Pear Braggot (Oregon). A one-off brewed in 2010, but you may still turn up a bottle on area shelves.
  • Weyerbacher Sixteen (Easton, Pa.): A dark braggot released this month for the brewery's 16th anniversary.

"Joe Sixpack" is by Don Russell, director of Philly Beer Week. For more on the beer scene, sign up for his weekly email update at www.joesixpack.net.  Email: joesixpack@phillynews.com.

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