The answer is invariably ‘yes’, writes Alastair Gilmour
There are so many new beers and styles available with every visit to the pub that it would be easy to think they’re produced on a whim. However, there’s an awful lot of thought going into what ingredient will work with another and how the actual brewing process will be affected.
The latest in a long line of beer experimentation is not exactly new – braggot has been around since beer was developed six thousand years ago. Braggot is a combination of honey and malted grains – mead meets beer comes close to its description – and the best braggot is formed rom a recipe that highlights the best of mead and beer in one delicious package.
As the American Homebrewers Association puts it: “History buffs toil away trying to recreate what different cultures were drinking thousands of years ago, while other forward-looking mead makers and homebrewers are pushing the envelope of ingredient combinations in braggot.”
Honey producer Mark Chambers – owner of The Travelling Bee Co – has been working with Newcastle University brewing facility Stu Brew on a prototype braggot recipe that he hopes will fulfil all expectations.
(Photo: Georgina Lydon)
Gateshead-based Mark keeps hives all over the North East of England, particularly Northumberland, plus Argyll in the west of Scotland. His bees take advantage of heather, lime trees, garden flowers and everything else in bloom to produce astonishing honeys that are available in specialist outlets that include including Fenwicks in Newcastle. But the honey used in the braggot samples came from hives within 200 metres of Gateshead Millennium Bridge and less than a mile from the university.
He says: “I do quite a bit of work with the university anyway, so I agreed to supply local honey in a flash. The beer is really nice; I love it – and it’s as local as you can get. I’d been thinking about a honey-type beer for some time and now we’ve got a choice between two cracking beers.”
(Photo: Georgina Lydon)
Andy Hickson, manager of The Green in Wardley, Gateshead, has been one of the first to try out the new braggot in the most scientific of tasting arenas, the bar.
He says: “Mark pops in occasionally and he brought in a few bottles of braggot to try, so we passed them around to see what the opinion was. The style follows on from when they would use all different ingredients in beer like heather and kelp because hops were so expensive.
“It’s an interesting beer style, it smells good, it’s effervescent, has a decent colour and is very pleasant. With being honey-based, the sweetness could override everything else, like those other honey beers – Waggle Dance was one – but it’s interesting to know that the two batches we sampled were made with two different yeasts.”
Stu Brew trainee brewers Tom Nesfield and Paulius Rasuikas have been working on the braggot recipe.
“Usually braggots are two-thirds honey and one-third malt,” says Tom. “However, as we wanted a beer around the 4.0% abv mark we switched the ratio. Technically, if you’re going by the official beer guidelines it isn’t a braggot but it’s the nearest style you could call it.
“We boiled rhubarb and added the juice part-way through fermentation to counter the honey sweetness. The batch was split into two fermenters, one fermented with S04 yeast and the other with S05 yeast.
“With S04 yeast you tend to get a more fruitier flavour and S05 gives a dry, crisp finish. Feedback from the Stu Brew committee largely preferred S04 yeast – on blind tasting, 39 people preferred S04 and 24 went for S05. Customers from The Green reported they preferred S05.
“We’re hoping the prototype will be scaled up to full batch size when rhubarb is in season.”
Paulius Rasuikas stresses the importance of yeast in this experiment and indeed the whole brewing process. He says: “Yeast makes a lot of difference in our prototypes. When we gave out blind samples, people were slightly in favour of the S04 strain. Brewing with honey is not difficult, but you need to make sure it dissolves well and take into account that most of the honey sugar will ferment out.”
It seems like this year’s rhubarb season is set to be a memorable one.
*This article was originally written for Cheers North East magazine, April 2018 (www.cheersnortheast.co.uk)