A few beers are made for aging. One of those is the braggot, a brew that falls between a beer, made with malts, and a mead, made with honey. Braggots can take a long time to make and they can be expensive, so not many breweries produce them. Sprecher Brewing has been aging a braggot for nearly two years now, though, and the first bottles just started appearing around southern Wisconsin.
Named Beyond 2014, this braggot's release is staggered in three waves over as many years. This brew is a special treat for those who enjoy big and bold beers that are distinctively sweet and spicy -- not to mention rare.
What is it? Beyond 2014 Braggot from Sprecher Brewing Company of Glendale, Wisconsin.
Style: Braggot, also called bracket or brackett, is closely related to mead, a drink that can be traced back thousands of years as one of the oldest alcoholic beverages. Standard meads are commonly made with only honey. However, some may feature different types of fruits. When a mead is made with malt, it's called a braggot. The earliest braggots were likely made by mixing or blending fermented mead with ale. Modern braggots are made by combining malt and honey during the brewing process.
Braggots are commonly made with a high percentage of honey, sometimes at levels of more than half of the fermentable sugars. Because honey is so easily fermented by yeast, it adds strength and sweetness to the brew. Any type of honey and any style of base beer can make up a braggot. Sprecher's underlying beer recipe has elements of a barleywine, while its honey is locally harvested. Braggots can be quite strong, with a range of 6%-12% ABV. They also age well when cellared.
Background: "This was quite an adventure," says Sprecher brewmaster Craig Burge about the two-year production time for Beyond 2014 Braggot. It is a combination of three different batches of beer. The first was made in March 2012, with a second batch that summer and a final batch later that fall. Since then, it's been sitting in aging tanks for nearly 18 months as Burge waited for the flavor he was looking for.
"I wanted its sweetness to dry out, so I kept it going," says Burge. "I kind of procrastinated on the whole thing, and I'm glad I did." The result is a braggot that's different from most others.
Burge has been making beer at Sprecher for more than 23 years. This is the first braggot ever produced by the brewery. "After all these years of brewing for Sprecher, I wanted to do something different. We've come out with about every style of beer possible," Burge says. "I was looking to make something that not a lot of breweries are making. And braggot is that."
Sprecher's version is based on a barleywine recipe. It starts with two-row pale, Pilsen and Caramel Pilsner malts. But honey is a major element in braggots, something you should sense from the initial aromas to the finish. Burge used a wildflower honey packaged by Indian Summer Honey Farm of Germantown, Wisconsin. It's the same honey Sprecher uses in many of its popular sodas. With each of the three 40-barrel batches of beer, Burge increased the amount of honey he used -- "an absurd amount," he says.
Altogether, Burge added 600 gallons of honey to 120 barrels (approximately 3,720 gallons) of beer. "For a braggot, it's all about the balance of honey you get in the nose and in the flavor," says Burge. Drinkers should perceive the honey first, he adds.
There's a lot of tweaking in Sprecher's braggot. "It's about 50% Belgian barleywine and 50% Wisconsin honey mead," Burge says. There are solid malty-undertones of a barleywine with lots of bready and caramel sweetness. Added to that are three types of hops: Centennial, Cascade and Columbus. "We ended up dry-hopping the whole batch with Columbus hop cones as a last step, which added some really nice layers of complexity," says Burge. The braggot was fermented with four different types of yeast, including a Belgian strain that adds hints of dark-fruit sweetness.
Beyond 2014 Braggot may have taken two years to produce, but it was designed for an even longer life. It can easily be cellared for years, says Burge. That's part of the rationale for the staggered release schedule, complete with corresponding color-coded labels -- bronze in 2014, silver in 2015 and gold in 2016. "I'm really curious, with all the alcohol in there and all the honey, what we'll end up with," he says.
Beyond 2014 Braggot (the bronze label, released this year) finishes at an estimated 11% ABV. It's sold in single 12-ounce bottles for $4.50-$5. Over the next two years, the brewery plans to release only about 400 cases of the silver and gold labels. Beyond will also be available at Sprecher's Restaurant and Pub on the west side of Madison.
The long-term commitment of time and expense to make a honey-based braggot is something that will likely be appreciated by Sprecher loyalists as well as by beer enthusiasts looking for new and different brews. "Even at the prices we sell it at, we are not going to make our money back on a beer like this," says brewery president Jeff Hamilton. "It's done for the passion of making something very special."
Considering the time it took to make, and the special malts, hops and unique contributions from the different yeasts, the name Beyond seemed pretty obvious to Burge. "It totally fits the whole adventure we were on in making it. It was above and beyond," he says.
- Aroma: A light floral sweetness with hints of honey and yeast.
- Appearance: Clear, deep copper color; looks like honey. A thin bubbly, tan-colored head.
- Texture: Full bodied and soft. Not much carbonation.
- Taste: Starts with the sweetness of honey. There are layers of dark-fruit yeastiness, light maltiness, toffee, spicy warmth and dry bitterness.
- Finish/Aftertaste: The light mild honey-like sweetness lingers, along with a touch of dryness.
Glassware: A snifter-style glass. Use a couple small ones and share a single bottle. The glass should encourage slowly savoring this rare brew.
Pairs well with: Beyond is a very nice after-dinner drink, and best on its own to appreciate the layers of flavor. Allow it to warm to room temperature, and experience waves of spicy warm sweetness, hints of dark-fruit and dryness.
Rating: Four Bottle Openers (out of four)
The Verdict: Beyond 2014 Braggot really lives up to its name. Overall, it's hard to pin it down between being a sweet braggot and a dry one. There's just so much to it, with its host of flavors. Beyond really maintains a smooth and sweet mead character while allowing layers of sweetness associated the malts, along with spicy-complexity of the hops, the slight raisin and cherry notes of the yeast, and eventually ending with a light yet firm dryness in the finish. There's also some warmth due to the 11% ABV, which complements both the sweetness and the spiciness. This isn't a beer that anyone enjoys more than a bottle at a time. It's definitely a snifter beer, and one that should be sipped to appreciate.
As much as I enjoyed this initial release, I'm even more interested to see how the silver and gold versions will compare with age. I suspect they will be even smoother and sweeter as Beyond matures.