New Brothers' Reserve: Widmer Braggot

"Her mouth was sweet as bra[ggo]t, or the nieth or hord of apples Laid in bey or heth."
~Chaucer, Canterbury Tales
I always feel that, when you're sitting down to review a beverage in a style you've never tried, it's best to start out with an inexplicable quote in Middle English. (Which sounds, perhaps not unexpectedly, like drunk-speak.) Throw the reader off, that's my motto.

So today we confront the second in Widmer's new Brothers' Reserve series: a prickly pear braggot. This raises two questions:
  1. What's a braggot?
  2. What's a prickly pear?
Well, I guess the first question has already been answered: a neith of apples in bey or heth. Obviously. Actually, it's an old-timey English drink, a mixture of mead and ale. Very few commercial examples exist, and certainly none with a lineage back to historic times. How it was originally made, why, and what it tasted like--well, Chaucer may be as close as we get. (It's well to remember that beer of Chaucer's vintage would have been sour and wild; brewer Ben Dobler suggests that maybe breweries used to cut sour old ale with sweet mead to make it more palatable. Or perhaps it was because ale was taxed heavily and beer was not--or vice versa. Or maybe it was just because a brewer one day had the wild idea to dump a half cask of ale into a half cask of mead and it was a success. Who knows.)

To the second question. Prickly pears are a type of cactus that grow in the Southwest and Mexico. They have a paddle-shaped stems where water is stored and from these sprout little fruits which apparently taste like tomatoes (ish). The brewery used the tomato-tasting fruit in this recipe. As you can see, it is a vibrant red, but little of the color came through in their braggot, to general disappointment. And why prickly pears? Head brewer Joe Casey, who is from New Mexico, fancied them. We can imagine what the braggot might have tasted like if he were from Idaho, but alas, we have only the prickly pear variety to judge.

Meads are, of course, beverages made of fermented honey. The Widmers used knapweed honey, selected because it has a spicy, earthy quality. My sense is that a typical braggot would normally have about half honey and half ale, but this is somehow illegal (stupid American liquor laws), so the Brothers' braggot was made with 60% malt, 25% honey, and 15% prickly pear. (The honey arrived in 55 gallon drums, partly crystallized, and made for some very gross labor. I'll attach a video at the end, and you can see how it got everywhere. Remember kids, brewing is glamorous!)

Tasting Notes
As you can see from the photo, it's a lovely honey-colored beer. Upon pouring or swirling, it rouses an amazing tornado of tiny bubbles (and all of us stood around rousing). The aroma reminded me of saison, a bit herbal, a bit Belgiany. Brady, standing next to me, dismissed this: "boozy," he declared. True, it's strongly alcoholic, which is also the predominant note on the tongue. Some meads are heavy and viscous, but the braggot was quite thin--more like a fortified Belgian strong. The honey emerges if you let it warm a bit, and it then tends toward the sweet. More subtle notes are herbal and earthy. The prickly pear? Unfortunately, I wasn't able to identify anything obvious. Perhaps those familiar with the flavor could sniff out its contribution.

In the end, it's not too foreign or exotic. Those who know and like beer will not feel like this is too far afield; on the other hand, it might also make a nice beer for the wine-drinkers. (A testable hypothesis.) You end up feeling like you've been taken to the shallow end of the strange pool--an enjoyable, safe place to be. I would recommend everyone try a glass or bottle; it's a fun drink. And my guess is that this won't be the last braggot we see, so let it be a baseline if, like me, you've never encountered this ancient beverage.

Okay, here's that video: