The more I delve into these obscure beers, the more I wonder about just what makes them obscure. Is it the fact that the ingredients are uncommon? Perhaps, but uncommon to one geographic location can be very common to another. The same could be said as well for time period: tastes change, and what was common long ago is no longer as common now (see: Gruit). Is it the fact that they are unique in terms of ingredient use? Again, that mystical cop-out rears its head: it depends. Some are, but an increasing number of obscure styles that I stumble upon seem to be combinations therein of seemingly normal ingredients. Enter Braggot: much like the Lictenheiner, it is a combination of two ingredients / styles that are not commonly thought of as being complimentary. Very much unlike the Lictenheiner, however, its ingredients are that much more…“normal.” Simply put; it is a combination of honey wine (mead) and beer. Depending on how it is made, it could be considered one of the earliest versions of the adjunct beers we are ever so familiar with. But perhaps, as well, it could be the original honey lager? Or to put it more accurately, as I don’t believe this is something the Germans would be caught dead with, the first honey ale? To use my newly favourite phrase: it depends.
It would, of course, help in our discussion of this beer to know what it is: simply put, braggot is a combination of mead and beer, and a beverage that even has some fame behind it in terms of being mentioned (positively) in literary works. Indeed, Chaucer makes note of it in The Canterbury Tales when describing (positively I should add) a young woman: “Hir mouth was sweete as bragot or the meeth,” (153). If it’s high praise for an individual, that certainly must mean good things for the beverage itself. I assume that was specific to the manufacturer, or should I say, the bartender. Yes, braggot wasn’t actually made as a distinct, standalone beverage. It was a form of mixed cocktail, made at the bar by the publican/bartender on staff immediately prior to serving. It was quite literally a handmade beer cocktail. We’ll just add that to the list too: the world’s first beer cocktail.
There was a wide amount of variance when it came to recipes, but it is generally understood as being at least 1/3 beer, and less than or equal to 2/3 mead. Most descriptions, such as Chaucer’s, do describe it as being quite sweet, so the frequency of high beer to mead ratios seem to be unlikely. Given that the mead of the day had a much higher degree of fermentability (meaning a boozier product), and the beer of the day tended to not have so great a shelf life (oh how far we have come in the realm of packaging and quality), it would not surprise me if we saw old beer mixed with new mead, as a means of clearing out product that people wouldn’t want to otherwise drink, much like the publicans of England mixing their old and new beer at given amounts to serve a beer that tasted as beautiful as possible. On top of the mead, however, you also have the addition of fruits and spices (much like the gruit of the day) at the time of mixing. So what is the end result? You have a beer cocktail in the 6-12% ABV range with a decent degree of residual sugar sweetness, with all the notes (and variability in flavour) that come with locally sourced honey (and gruit).
Of course, the braggot you can find now differs a bit from back then, mainly from the differences in brewing efficiency, and most probably from the fact that you won’t find a bartender willing to mix you mead and beer at a price that doesn’t make your wallet break out into tears. However, unlike the other styles I’ve written about so far, you can find it locally. At least, more so than the others. Sam Adams (of New England fame) and Rogue (of Sriracha Stout fame) both have braggots on release. However, unlike those of the past, these breweries all add honey to the wort and ferment it alongside, because it turns out selling two individual beverages and having the consumer mix it themselves isn’t as popular as one would believe. Sam Adams has a bitterness akin to those of an IPA followed by citrus, fresh fruit blossoms, and chamomile, with the locally sourced honey dominating the flavour profile. Meanwhile, Rogue’s makes use of marionberry (a form of blackberry), from its Oregon farm, with the end result being one of earthy, dry, and according to one commenter, having “an almost Trappist-ale-like finish.”
Sign me up, especially if it lets me cellar one or two to get a vertical going. While I don’t expect anyone to take this on full time, hopefully this can turn into a brewery’s pet project with limited, brewery-only releases.