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Braggot: an ancient British honey ale

By Tim Hampson

Braggot

One of my favourite events each year is the National Honey Show
(NHS). The three-day event held at Sandown Park, Esher in Surrey,
is a celebration of all things honey.  It is the UK’s premier honey show with international classes, lectures and workshops that attract beekeepers from all over the world. The classes include how to make beeswax shoe polish, propolis tincture, honey vinegar and a salve from honey and beeswax.

The event also hosts more than 250 competitive classes, which
include the broad embrace of honey culture. It’s much more than honey
in a jar – there are classes for beeswax candles, photography, baking and alcoholic drinks. There are even demonstrations on how to make beeswax food wraps. If your New Year’s resolution was to use fewer single-use plastics, then these wraps made from honey, cotton and baking paper could be for you.

Honey, of course, can be fermented by itself or with other ingredients to create a number of alcoholic drinks. By itself, diluted in water, it is called mead. The NHS has six classes for meads, including dry, sweet, melomel (with fruit) and cyser (with apple). In recent years, the NHS has also offered two classes for honey beers – home brew and commercial. Used in beer, honey adds a distinctive sweetness and roundness; however, use too much and the result can become cloying.

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Depending on the location of the hives, the honey can take on the terroir of the plants from which it is made. Hives near heather take in the earthy aromas of the tips. Those close to clover produce flavour notes from the flowers.

Home brewers can add honey in a number of ways. The first is during the boil, usually towards the end, when it becomes part of the original gravity of the wort. As a result of its simple sugars profile, honey tends to ferment out complexity, and any sense of sweetness derived is usually an aromatic effect rather than residual sugar. In the boil, honey can contribute a range of flavours – from wildflower to funky oak. It all depends on the type of pollen foraged.

Some home brewers choose to add it post fermentation, where the honey adds sweetness. Many aromatic volatiles can be lost during fermentation, so adding it after fermentation allows the brewer to bring a more pronounced honey flavour. 

New to the NHS last year was a class for an ancient drink called braggot. It contains a large amount of honey in the wort, usually more than 50 per cent of the original gravity. The drink is an odd hybrid as it is part beer and part mead. It’s an old style and some of the earliest references suggest it is a Celtic drink from the 12th century. In part of his late-15th-century Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer describes a “youthful wife” as having a mouth as “sweet as braggot or as mead”. 

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