Braggots: Understanding the World of Mead Hybrids
When we think about beer, most of us think about an alcoholic beverage made with malt, water, yeast and hops. And, that’s largely true. However, you’ll find a number of other combinations out there, many of them dating back thousands of years. Such is the case with braggots. While not truly a beer, these mead-beer hybrids are becoming more and more popular on the US craft beer scene as small brewers explore their art’s ancient roots.
What Is a Braggot?
Defining a braggot is no simple matter. Take the Home Brewers Association’s attempt for example. “At some point,” they write, “a clear genius married the qualities of mead and beer in a hybrid beverage known as braggot. You’d be hard-pressed to characterize all braggots under one description, with its vast history and presence around the world. In fact, besides having honey and malted grains in a beverage with the qualities of both mead and beer marking the character, the array of braggots is nearly as wide as the number of homebrew styles.”
When you get right down to it, a braggot is a combination of mead and beer. That is, it’s a mead that is brewed with not just honey, but also malted grain (generally in the form of barley). These hybrid beverages date back centuries – Geoffrey Chaucer references “bragget” in Canterbury Tales, and the drink was hundreds, if not thousands, of years old when Chaucer enjoyed it.
There’s a lot of vagary involving braggots, all the way down to the name used. Some people call them braggets, as Chaucer did. Others stick with braggot. Yet others call them brackets, or even bracketts, or brakkatts. Not only are these names used by consumers, but you’ll find them used by brewers, as well. For instance, White Winter brews both a traditional “brackett”, and an oak “brackett”. Both are braggots, though. Atlantic Brewing Company also has a “bragget”, which is actually a braggot.
In the end, the name doesn’t really matter. What does matter is the way it’s made. Braggots should be a mix of honey and malt, but can also contain other elements. For instance, to make one that’s closer to beer, a brewer could add hops to the brewing process for bittering, or add them through dry hopping during the secondary fermentation period.
These unique hybrids also vary greatly in terms of alcohol content. Mead is usually pretty strong, ABV-wise. It’s a honey wine, and depending on the amount of honey used and the type of yeast in question, they can hit 19% ABV or even higher. They can also be much lower in alcohol content, though, which leads to a shorter maturation period. Usually, true meads need to be aged for at least six months, up to several years before consuming. Compare that to a month or so for beer.
If you sample any braggots, you’ll find that no two are the same. They even vary from batch to batch from the same brewery. There are several reasons for this, but perhaps the most important is the honey. Most craft breweries create their braggots with local honey, which is created by local bees. Now, those bees obviously subsist on whatever flowers are available at the time, and that can change from year to year, and even from month to month. So, a braggot made with wildflower honey will taste different from one made with cotton-flower honey, or clover honey.
There are other factors at play here that alter the taste, as well. Again, should the brewer choose to add hops, those will have a dramatic impact on the taste, as will whether they’re added during the boil, after the boil, or during secondary fermentation. Other herbs might be added to the mix, as well. Star anise, rosemary, even basil – all of these and many others have been used to enhance the flavor of braggots.
How Does a Braggot Differ from a Honey Beer?
Poke around the market for very long, and you’ll run across braggots (or whatever the brewery’s preferred spelling might be) and honey beers. Are they the same thing? Well, not really. There’s some blurring of the lines, but most authorities separate braggots from honey beers.
How do they differ? In general, a braggot should derive no more than 50% of its fermentable sugars from malted barley. The other 50% should be honey. The scale can slide toward the honey side of the spectrum, too. Even if the brewer uses 10% malt and 90% honey, it’s still a braggot.
However, if they cross the 50% line with the malt bill, it becomes a honey beer, not a braggot. So, a beverage created with 60% malt and 40% honey would be a beer, just like one created with 10% honey and 90% malt.
In terms of taste, they differ as well. With a braggot, you get the best of both worlds in a balanced blend, or more honey than anything else in one that skews toward the honey side of the spectrum. A honey beer, on the other hand, will taste more like beer than anything else.
Who’s Making Braggots Today?
While they’re making a comeback to some extent, there aren’t a ton of braggot examples on the market. The two mentioned previously are good examples of what you will find. Weyerbacher also has a version available (Sixteen). Honey beers are more prevalent, with pilsners, wee heavies, red ales, and more. However, prepare to see more and more of these interesting hybrids come to the market as brewers continue to delve into the past, and as craft meaderies grow in popularity.
What about you? Have you tried a braggot? What were your thoughts? Prefer honey beer instead? Share your experiences and thoughts below.