It's Mead! It's Beer! It's Bragot!
How to make grain-based mead or, if you prefer, honey-based beer...like a Viking of course.
What I’m going to cover here are the two simplest methods for the beginning brewer, but that are also perfectly acceptable for experienced brewers due to the high potential for experimentation. These would be the extract method and the brew in a bag (BIAB) method. The latter can be easily adapted for those who have a full all-grain brewing setup, as it’s still all-grain brewing, just without all the fancy equipment. If you do a lot of cooking and canning, you likely have everything you need already.
History is fun!
But first, some history. After all, if you’re going to brew the stuff, you’re going to want to know what it is, which means you’ll need to know something about its past. It doesn’t hurt to start with its etymology. You may see it written as braggot. I’ve more often seen it as bragot in older texts, so I choose to spell it this way in my writings since I’m a fan of all things old. Other variations I’ve seen are bragio, brakkatt and bracket. Although I have yet to come across a direct connection, I like to think that the word likely has some correlation with Odin’s son Bragi, the god of music and poetry. Bragi came about from a dalliance Odin had with the giantess Gunnlod, during which they drank nearly all of the “mead of poetry” before Odin changed into an eagle and flew back to Aasgard to spew it all in some waiting cauldrons so he could share it with his fellow gods. Fortunately, he shared a bit with us.
Upon noting Bragi’s astounding talent for music and song, Odin made him the skald (poet) of Aasgard. The English word brag also comes from Bragi, as Bragi’s name was often toasted at feasts such as Yuletide celebrations when mead- (or bragot-) drunk folks would vow to accomplish great things during the upcoming year. Welsh ale (or Welsh bragawd) was also a type of bragot, but over time recipes for Welsh ale contained less honey, making them more of a sweet ale than a bragot. Apparently, the Welsh really liked their bragots. A Welsh ode to a drinking horn I came across in Randy Mosher’s inspiring book Radical Brewing: Recipes, Tales, and World-Altering Meditations in a Glass goes:
Cup-bearer, when I want thee most,
With duteous patience mind my post,
Reach me the horn. I know its power
Acknowledged in the social hour:
Hirlas [name of the horn], thy contents to drain,
I feel a longing e’en to pain;
Pride of the feasts, profound and blue [referring to the silver from which it was made].
Of the ninths wave’s azure hue,
The drink of heroes formed to hold,
Wih art enrich’d and lid of gold!
Fill it with bragawd to the brink,
Confidence inspiring drink.
Bragot at its core is simply mead made with grains, or if you prefer, beer made with honey. It needs to have a large amount of honey to distinguish it from honey beer, which is simply beer with a bit of honey for flavoring. While many bragots today are made with hops, hops is by no means a required component of bragot, or beer for that matter. Traditionally it was brewed with large amounts of herbs and spices, with hops only sometimes being an ingredient. I like to brew bragot with the same considerations as I do other beers and meads. That is, with natural, healthful and sustainability-minded intentions. After all, Bragi was known for his spirit of peace and cooperation, and the Norse were very mindful of the earth and the need to thank it for its gifts.
For ingredients, I use local, raw and unfiltered honey. I don’t boil or pasteurize the honey so I can keep its aroma and health qualities intact, and I add lots of herbs and spices for both flavoring and health benefits. If possible, I source all grains and adjuncts locally, or at least through sustainability-minded organizations. And I never sanitize my equipment with chemicals. I clean thoroughly, sometimes sterilize with heat, and occasionally use earth-friendly cleaners (not sanitizers) such as One Step.
Let's brew some bragot
Now that you know a little bit about bragot, let’s make some. I’ll start with a simple extract recipe, as this will be the easiest and quickest to make for brewers at any level. It’s practically a no-fail recipe, as every extract batch I’ve made has been met with rousing cheers by all who tried it. I initially came across a recipe for extract bragot from Ken Schramm’s The Compleat Mead Maker and generally alter it very little, although I do often use different hops and sometimes vary the amount of grain. To keep things succinct I’ll start with equipment and recipe lists for an extract bragot, with recommendations for variations and experimentation. Then, I’ll go into the process for each method. Keep in mind that my goal is to speak to all levels of brewers, but it may help to have some previous brewing knowledge. Otherwise, do a little research or ask me if any of the terminology doesn’t make sense.
- 1 16 qt. (4 gallon/15-L) stainless steel pot for extract brewing or 1 30 qt. (7 gallon/26 L) pot for BIAB brewing
- Some additional pots of various sizes for BIAB, the larger the better
- 1 long stirring spoon or totem / magic stick (in case you’re wondering)
- 1 hydrometer for measuring potential alcohol content (not necessary, but helpful)
- 2 6-7 gallon fermentation vessels; either plastic brewing buckets with lids or glass carboys
- Airlock, cork (for carboy) or lid (for plastic bucket) and 5-6 feet of food-grade tubing for siphoning
- 1 large (18 3/4" x 19") fine mesh nylon straining bag
- 1 high-temp brewing or candy thermometer (or wing it like the ancients and go by sight and touch)
- A wort chiller (explained later/optional)
Ingredients and suggested adjuncts:
- For extract brewing: 6 lbs. amber dry malt extract and 2 lbs. pale dry malt extract
- For all-grain (BIAB) brewing: 8 lbs. crushed pale ale malt, 2 lbs. crushed amber/biscuit malt and 1 lb. crushed dextrin malt
- 6-12 oz. Cascade, US Fuggle or Sorachi Ace hops (for extract), or traditional bittering herbs such as mugwort (1 oz.), horehound (1 oz.), or dandelion greens (a handful or two)
- Spices such as cinnamon (1-2 sticks), cloves (1-2), allspice (1-2 cracked), black peppercorn (4-5 cracked)
- 12 lbs. / 1 gallon of a light- to medium-bodied honey such as wildflower, clover or sourwood
- 10 grams (two packets) of Lalvin D-47 wine yeast or Safalefc US-05 ale yeast; a cup or two of active wild-fermented mead or beer will also work
- 20-30 raisins for nutrients (modern recipes would call for two tsps. each of yeast nutrient and yeast energizer)
- 5 gallons (give or take) of good, clean water, spring if possible
- 2 large bags of ice (optional)
Time to brew!
As always, I recommend planning for brew day by not only making sure you have all of the equipment and ingredients you need but also preparing an environment conducive to invoking the brew spirits. Ancient cultures would undergo rituals to appease the brew spirits. These ranged from quiet meditation to rousing song and dance, depending on what they believed their spirits required. The Norse (early Scandinavians) would call upon the bryggjemann, or “brewing man.” I like to call upon the bryggjemann by visiting quietly with my various ferments in my brew room and then putting on some rousing folk music. Prepare however you wish, but let’s get started.
Start by cleaning and, if you prefer, sanitizing all equipment that will be in contact with the wort (unfermented beer) a few hours before you begin brewing. If you’re brewing with grains, read on. Otherwise, skip ahead to the boil.
Pour 1 1/2 gallons of water into a large kettle and heat to 170° - 175° F (76° - 79° C). It doesn’t hurt to insert a false bottom (I use one from my canner) to keep the grain bag from burning. Place the grain bag into the water, and fasten the top to the edges of the pot by tying it or using clothes pins if it doesn't fit snugly. Pour the grains in slowly, stirring constantly. For recipes with a lot of grain (like stout), add more water as needed as the grains soak up water until the grains are fully immersed.
Bring the temperature to about 145°-155° F (63°-68° C) and set a timer to 60 minutes. Stir regularly and lift up the grain bag every few minutes. At 30 minutes, begin heating about five quarts of water in a separate pot to 185-200° F (85°-93° C). This is your sparging water. At 60 minutes, it’s sparging time. My first few times doing this solo I cursed. A lot. The combination of a heavy bag of grain and hot water requires extra hands, but it can be done without help. If nothing else, keep a few empty pots on hand. Put on some insulated gloves or tie the bag to a stick or stirring spoon and lift it out of the water, allowing as much wort as possible to drip into the pot. Pour the sparging water over the bag slowly. Occasionally open the bag and move the grains around for maximum coverage. If you have a large colander that fits over the opening of your brewing pot, set the bag in the colander. You’ll want to end up with about 2-3 gallons of wort, which is essentially what has already been done for you if you choose to brew with an extract kit instead.
Extract Brewing / Next Steps for BIAB Brewing
For extract brewing, skip the above BIAB steps, bring about two gallons of water to a near-boil, and carefully add in the extract, stirring constantly while scraping the bottom to keep the extract from coagulating or sticking to the bottom. The BIAB and extract methods are pretty much the same from here. Bring the wort to a boil while continuing to stir. Lower the heat just enough to keep it at a steady, rolling boil. Do NOT leave the pot unattended for long. I check mine and give it a stir every couple of minutes. Most beer brewers have had the experience I had upon making my first beer, in which the thick, sticky extract boils over and leaves a really nasty mess on the stovetop. Check the clock or set a timer. You will be boiling for one hour, but you will need to add ingredients throughout the process. A good rule of thumb to follow is that adding bittering ingredients early in the boil such as hops will contribute more heavily to a bitter flavor, while adding them later will contribute more to aroma. Conversely, for herbs and spices, adding them early will impart their essence and health benefits, while adding later will impart more flavor. You can also save flavoring ingredients for adding to the secondary fermenter (after fermentation has slowed down). For this basic bragot, we’re only doing hops.
Add hops as follows: 3 oz. at 60 minutes, 2 oz. at 15-30 minutes and 1 oz. at 5-10 minutes. Note that I mention Cascade, US Fuggle OR Sorachi Ace hops in my recipe. I’m not a stickler for specifics. These will all provide a fine hoppy flavor, whether you go with one or all. A bragot can handle a lot of hops due to the amount of sweet you will be balancing with the bitter, so feel free to go hop wild! Add mugwort, horehound or dandelion leaves any time from 30 minutes on if you want more traditional bittering, and add flavoring spices in the last five minutes. I suggest starting with hops only before experimenting. Cut off heat at 60 minutes and allow the wort to rest for 10-15 minutes. Many modern recipes call for adding the honey to the boiling wort or adding it immediately after cutting of the heat to pasteurize it, but this minimizes both aroma and health properties. Once the wort has cooled down a bit, stir in the full amount of honey (12 pounds / 1 gallon).
Now, you need to cool the wort down as quickly as possible. This is both so you can get moving with the next step and because you increase the chances of your wort becoming “contaminated.” At least this is the standard homebrewing mantra. Since I leave my most of my mead out in an open-fermenter covered with a cloth for a week or more, I don’t see this being a problem. I’ve also done this with beer without a problem.
Still, you will have to wait several hours to overnight for the next step if you don’t take action. A common way of cooling wort, and what I did for years, is to buy a couple of large bags of ice before brew day, or to put a couple of gallon jugs of water in the freezer and take them out before they freeze completely. You than place the brew kettle in a large sink or bathtub and surround it with ice or cold water, continuing to add more until the wort is properly cooled. What you’re shooting for is the ideal yeast-pitching temperature, which is 60-70° F (15-21° C).
The traditional method for determining this is to place the back of one’s hand on the wort until it is “blood warm.” Eventually, I got tired of buying ice and made myself a wort chiller, which is simply coiled copper tubing with siphoning hoses clamped on the ends through which cold water is run with the tubing immersed in the wort. These can be pricey to buy at homebrew stores, but if you’re thrifty you can build your own for under thirty dollars. I have instructions on how to do this in my book Make Mead Like a Viking, but you can find oodles of sources online on how to build one. Wort chillers go through a lot of water but it’s still good water. I recommend saving it for the animals, the garden, the washing machine, or the kiddy pool.
You have the option now of using a hydrometer to determine the potential alcohol of your final brew. A hydrometer measures the original gravity (OG) of the wort, which you then use to compare to the final gravity (FG) upon completion of fermentation. You don’t really need to do this for extract brewing. It’s not absolutely necessary for all-grain brewing, but it helps. It’s good to use one during the sparging process, as you may need to re-sparge a couple of times to get the right amount of sugars for your target gravity. Otherwise, it’s best to check when the wort has cooled to yeast-pitching temperature. Many homebrewers swear by hydrometers but I’ve also known of some, like myself, who prefer to go with the more traditional and intuitive approach to brewing. Still, I have a few hydrometers, so I tend to use them Follow the instructions that came with your hydrometer for recording and calculating potential alcohol levels, and for adjusting measurements based on the temperature of the wort. The beauty of bragot is that you can make up for low sugar levels from the sparging process, making a hydrometer even less necessary. If you do use a hydrometer, 5-8 pounds of honey bring the reading to about 1.080. Twelve pounds will bring it closer to 1.100. More honey=more fermentable sugars=more booziness!
Next, pitch your yeast (or add a cup of an actively fermenting mead or beer) and add nutrients. You can Kickstart the yeast by sprinkling it over the surface of about a cup of warm water before-hand, but I generally add it straight to the wort and stir vigorously to aerate. Siphon or pour (through a funnel) into a carboy or bucket, put a bung/cork with an airlock in the carboy opening or bucket lid and set it in a warm, dark corner (60-70° F / 15-21° C). This will likely be a very vigorous ferment, so you may want to run a siphoning tube from the hole in the bung to a jar of clean water until fermentation slows down. If you don’t get active fermentation within 24 hours, you may have a stuck fermentation.
Once fermentation has subsided, add an airlock half full (never half empty!) of clean water. If you desire to dry-hop for an extra hoppy aroma, add 1 oz. of hops now, or add herbs and spices for flavoring. Take care to not add too much, as whatever flavors you add will be fairly strong now that fermentation is nearly complete. After a week or two in the primary fermenter, it’s a good idea to rack (transfer) it to a secondary fermenter, i.e. another carboy or bucket.
This helps to smooth out the flavor by taking it off of all of the dead yeast (lees, or trub) and other sediment. Leave it here for at least a week. Or, if you prefer, add a few handfuls of oak chips or bourbon barrel chips and leave it on them for a month or two. I did this recently with a bragot I made by adding honey to a blonde ale recipe, which I of course decided to call “Bob’s Bodacious Blonde Bourbon Barrel Bragot.” If using a hydrometer, check the gravity level after a week and every couple of days thereafter. When it stays at around 1.010 or lower for 2-3 days, calculate the final alcohol level by comparing it to your OG notes.
When you’re ready to bottle, clean and rinse approximately 48 beer bottles or 24 wine bottles, or any combination thereof. Rack the bragot to a clean carboy or bucket with a siphoning hose. A bucket with a spigot is best for this stage. Standard beer recipes call for dissolving 3/4 cups of corn sugar or in about two cups of heated water, and stirring it into the beer. I prefer to use 1/2 cup of honey instead. Any sugar will do. This nifty calculator will give you recommended amounts for all kinds of sugars. The sugar causes the bragot to fully carbonate within about two weeks of bottling. Use a capper or corker of your choice or do as I do and collect plenty of flip-top bottles and growlers. Traditionally, beer and bragot was un-carbonated but I enjoy my fizz too much to go this far.
This is where much patience is required. Generally, beer can be drinkable within about two weeks and at its prime at around a month or two. Bragot is more like a wine or mead and needs more time to fully age, from six months to a year. This is tough to do though. I’ve found most bragots are plenty drinkable within just a few weeks but always try to hold onto a couple bottles to see how they age. As with mead and beer, the sky’s the limit when emulating ancient recipes or coming up with your own. Traditionally, mead, beer and bragot would often have as many as 50 or more different herbs in them. So, experiment away, skip the hops, and brew like an ancient.