Writer, brewer, beer educator, and advocate, Ben Edmunds, attended Widmer’s recent Prickly Pear Braggot release to get the inside scoop on the brewery’s latest Brothers’ Reserve Series release.
Widmer Bros., Portland’s largest brewery, recently released its Prickly Pear Braggot, the second in its new reserve series of beers. Last week, I was able to join a number of beer writers and store owners at the brewery for a preview of this new beer and had a chance to speak with the brewers and Widmer brothers themselves about their latest concoction. Thanks to the brewers and marketing folks who pulled the event together!
The Brothers’ Reserve series, according to Kurt and Rob Widmer, is an ongoing project of single-release beers that allow the brewers to explore the outer edges and limits of the beer universe. Though the brewers may choose to recreate these batches a second time, there is no guarantee that any brew from the Brothers’s Reserve will get another release. While many breweries have annual releases of specialty brews, there are only a handful of brewers who offer a full line of one-off beers with the caveat to drinkers that they may never have a chance to try them again. The folks at Widmer are also especially tight-lipped about what we can expect from the series in the future; despite repeated attempts to find out what the next beer in the series will be, the other guests and I could only confirm that, indeed, the third Brothers’ Reserve beer has already been brewed.
Braggot is a rare beverage that is a mixture of beer and mead. Strictly speaking, braggot ought to derive at least half of its fermentable sugars from honey. Any less, and it’s just a ‘honey ale.’ Traditionally, braggot was probably just a mixture of honey wine and ale, but federal regulations today prohibit the mixing of wine and beer in a single beverage, so straight honey must be added to the kettle during brewing to make a ‘legal braggot’ in the US today. Given the logistical (and physical) difficulty of adding so much honey to beer, most of the craft beer braggots I’ve tried have ranged more in the 30-45% range as far as honey goes. Widmer’s version uses 25% Knapweed honey from Montana, which has a definite dirty and earthy character to it. Sixty percent of the sugars came from pale malt, and the remaining 15% came from the addition of prickly pear juice during cellaring.
From a brewer’s point of view, I like the idea of having a higher amount of malt in a braggot, which will fill out the mouthfeel of the beer. Almost all of the sugars in honey are fermentable, so it requires a nice left of residual malt sugars to give such a strong beer the body it deserves. Though higher alcohols, themselves, adds to the palatefullness of a beer, malt-driven body helps hide some of the heat and harshness of young, high ABV (alcohol by volume) beers. The creamy, heavy mouthfeel is easily one of the most distinguishing characteristics of this brew, and all of us beer geeks present immediately noted it.
Though the brewery has been working with honey on a semi-regular basis for the past ten years, Widmer brewers Joe Casey, Ben Dobler, and Doug Rehberg were quick to admit that they were shooting in the dark a little with this style. Very little is written about braggot. The addition of prickly pear was part random chance and part tip of the hat to Casey’s southwestern roots. Green prickly pear has a strong vegetal character, but I personally struggled to find any of that quality in the beer.
The brewers said that they find honey to be the predominant character despite the fact that they had ratcheted down its overall presence from traditional recipes. The honey flavor is quite strong, but the overall impression of this brew is similar to a strong digestif—it is boozy, sweet, and slightly musty. Northwest hop heads will have a fit with this one, as it only has a mild bittering addition of hops to cut the sweetness and prevent it from being cloying. Perhaps I’m associating it too much with honey wine, but I could see this brew pairing really nicely with Ethiopian cuisine: the sweetness contrasting the sour twang of injera and cutting through the heaviness of spicy Berbere sauces.
If this release is any indication of where the Brothers’ Reserve series is headed, I’m excited to see what they have up their sleeve next. When the “bigger” brewers are willing to experiment to this degree, it inspires and opens up new opportunities for other adventurous brewers. Don’t expect braggot to be the next fad of Portland’s craft brewers, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Widmer’s experiment inspires some folks around town to play and work more with honey. It sounds like the great start of a summer beer recipe to me!
Ben Edmunds is the founder and director of the Oregon Beer Odyssey (OBO), a company dedicated to promoting appreciation and knowledge of great beer through tastings, classes, and private events. OBO offers regular events around Portland, Oregon. Whether you’re already beer savvy or are just coming out as beer curious, you’ll find their classes fun and educational. For more information on upcoming OBO events, visit OregonBeerOdyssey.com