Written by K. Florian Klemp for allaboutbeer.com
Said to be at least 9,000 years old, mead is considered our most ancient intentionally fermented beverage. The uninitiated assume that today’s mead is heavy and cloyingly sweet, a surprisingly prevalent misconception. To be sure, mead can be made sweet, but honey as a medium allows for a vast number of interpretations, the majority of which would destroy any preconceived notion of its character. Home meadmakers know this well, and the variety that this writer has run across is mind-numbing, in more ways than one. Varietal honey alone offers dozens of choices and even brings with it a distinctly regional flair. With that in mind, and since this is a column dedicated to beer brewing, a natural path worthy of exploration is the melding of mead and beer: braggot.
Honey varieties are as distinctive as any malt or hop, and should be chosen carefully to meld with other additions, be they spice, fruit, grape or in our case, malt-based recipes.
Braggot (variously called bracket, bragot, brakkatt or brackett) is often associated historically with medieval Britain. Consumed widely in the Middle Ages, it was either ale wort fermented with honey, ale blended with fully fermented mead, or an ale laced with honey and spices. Often it was blended by the publican on the spot in one way or another. As hops gained acceptance in the British Isles, they too found a home in braggot.
The availability of both varietal honey and brewing ingredients these days fairly begs the hobbyist to concoct one of these medieval brews. The compatibility of malt and honey is a natural one, and the diversity of each means that there are happy partners for all.
Though most homebrewers dabble in mead at some point, it is usually a sometime endeavor, making some of the considerations for brewing braggot not so obvious. On the other hand, every club or group of homebrewers seems to have at least one person schooled in the art of mead who is more than willing to offer some advice.
The contribution of varietal honey is the first factor that a home meadmaker must consider when putting together a recipe. Honey varieties are as distinctive as any malt or hop, and should be chosen carefully to meld with other additions, be they spice, fruit, grape or in our case, malt-based recipes. Search for a varietal guide, and peruse your local markets and think of what they might contribute to a braggot from a perspective of beer styles.
Floral and herbal varietals would work well in an earthy, basic pale ale recipe. Those with fruity notes could be more at home in a wheat beer. Delicate honey and a single malt grist of pilsner malt would be quite a challenge, but the perfect summer choice for braggot. Richer, more aggressively flavored honey, like buckwheat or avocado, would add immeasurably to a darker beer. Also consider how they would blend with a particular cultivar of hop. Perhaps a local wildflower honey and your own homegrown hops could become your signature: seasonal wet hop braggot.
In competition, a judge will look for a contribution from both the beer and mead components, not necessarily equal, but distinct from each in artful manner. This isn’t a competition though, and the degree to which honey is used to influence the character is totally personal. For our purposes, though, the challenge is to marry the two so they harmonize and flatter one another. An equal representation from malt and honey might work fine for the more delicate varietals, but a 20 percent addition may be more than enough for the more boisterous ones.
All-grain recipes may be easier to tweak or manipulate, but extract and honey are so similar that the extract brewer may have a leg up when it comes to putting a plan into action. For either strategy, it would be best to make the beer first, stirring in the honey at the end after the heat is shut off. This should drop the wort temperature enough to still pasteurize the honey (if you even feel that is necessary), while at the same time retaining the desirable volatile components―pasteurization at 150º F or higher for a few minutes should do the trick.
As for boiling the malt wort, decide on how much bittering you want out of your hops. Thirty minutes at a minimum would serve to sterilize the wort, allow time for kettle coagulant to work during the bittering process, and leave enough time for aromatic hop and spice additions at knockout. Again, hops are a personal choice, but think hard about their contribution as some are quite overwhelming at high doses in any addition. Try to calculate an IBU level of about 20 to 25. Honey has a specific gravity of about 1.400 to 1.500, so a quart of honey will be around three pounds, give or take.
Honey contributes about the same gravity points as liquid malt extract, as they are quite similar in moisture content. Start with one pound of honey (11 fluid ounces) per gallon of finished braggot, and work from there. Added at that rate to wort with an original gravity of 1.045 should give roughly an equal contribution of honey and malt extract. Specialty malt will offset the high fermentability of honey, unless you desire a very dry braggot.
Homebrewers are always keen to the importance yeast has on any finished product, and braggot is yet another palette to experiment with. Neutral American or estery London ale yeast would incorporate nicely into a braggot, as would a more characterful Belgian yeast. Think about a buckwheat honey Belgian dubbel fermented with an abbey yeast. If it’s more of a mead character you desire, select from the many dry, medium or sweet mead yeasts that are available. Yeast specs are offered by both White Labs and Wyeast Laboratories online. Braggot can be made either still or with some carbonation, so decide which route you’d prefer, but I would wager that your braggot would be better with a bit of a sparkle and a few months of age on it.
K. Florian Klemp is an award-winning homebrewer and general hobbyist who thinks there is no more sublime marriage than that of art and science.