By Brian Yaeger
Once upon a time, like, two years ago, there were no breweries focused exclusively on braggots—beer and mead hybrids. Now, the middle of Oregon is veritably awash in them with the opening of Fire Cirkl in White City and Viking in Eugene. But while they both concoct beverages with fermented malt and honey, the similarities end there.
First, let’s start with Fire Cirkl, founded by retired Navy fighter pilot James Romano in 2012. Yes, he flew F-14s through four deployments over 13 years in the Navy. He transitioned back into civilian life as a pilot for American Airlines and if that sounds boring by comparison, it was. Over a dozen years later, he pursued his entrepreneurial dream of earning an MBA. His goal? Build a company that would allow him to live where he wanted, do what he wanted, and follow his passion. That apparently means living on a ranch way, way above Medford, surrounded by more horses than people, and going from home brewer to commercial brewer, but not of regular ol’ beer, but ancient braggots. “I’m interested in bringing back new flavors,” says Romano.
On his six-barrel brewery without a tasting room (he’s not allowed), he makes braggots the authentic way—50 percent mead, 50 percent ale—though he’s not allowed to label it as such. To understand why, go ask the feds. But his products are certified 100 percent organic despite there being “no real money today in making things organically.” If you think regular honey is expensive, the organic stuff constitutes 75 percent of his expenses. And while he toyed with the idea of going the half-million-dollar 20-barrel route, Fire Cirkle is smaller but self-financed, hence the remote locale.
Romano pulls recipes from antiquity. “Hops only go back 500 years in 10,000 year history of beer. Why are we going in the direction of hops? There’s a market here that isn’t being served,” Romano explains. “I love reading about the Druids, the Greeks and Romans, the Sumerians and Native Americans.” Bowing to modernity, somewhat, he realizes some consumers want beer over braggot, so he’s expanding his lineup, but even then he’s developing mostly gruits, which he calls them pre-hopped rather than un-hopped. “I’ve got a dark ale that uses all the same herbs that go into French Absynth...Wormwood provides bitterness in lieu of hops.”
James sampled a few of his braggots for me such as one of his flagships, Dragon’s Blood, which starts as a porter fermented with wine yeast. There are plenty of New Zealand hops in it—Pacific Gem and Hallertau—and might appeal to barleywine fans. Or just wine fans, as the aroma is quite fruity like a Zinfandel. The first sip offers roasted malts, but it finishes like squirting a teddy bear bottle of honey into your mouth, albeit blackberry or currant honey.
But that’s Romano’s catch. To be braggot, it needs to be fifty/fifty, otherwise he considers it honey beer. He conceived of Fire Cirkl in 2007 and hoped he wouldn’t be too late by the time he got it going. He was surprised that by the time bottles showed up in 2012, he was actually the first.
But not the only. Welcome Viking Braggot Company, founded by U of O Business School grads Daniel McTavish and Addison Stern who hired Weston Zaludek and Perry Ames to foment their fermented folly. Zaludek is quite bee-like himself. He thinks and speaks as quickly as a bee flaps its wings and he’s always looking to pollinate a great idea to create sweet results.
Viking’s braggots are far from cloying; they usually contain about 30 percent honey that ferments out to dryness. That’s far from the aforementioned fifty/fifty split but according to the BJCP, it dubs a braggot a mead made with malt but doesn’t specify how much, merely suggesting “a harmonious blend of of mead and beer.” To Zaludek and the crowd gathered in Viking’s beer garden, er, braggot garden, harmonious is closer to a third honey content.
And though Zaludek refers to certain creations as, for example, a pineapple IPA or a bourbon stout, these organic ales feature not just organic honey, but herbs, teas, and anything else that suits their whimsy.
That IPA contains over fifty pounds of sage honey as well as thirty raw pineapples, hand-chopped and added to secondary fermentation where the fruit served a dual role as a fining agent since the yeast went to town on it and finished tasting not like the juice, but as if it were hopped with Simcoe hops or something tropical. And the bourbon-barrel aged stout contains meadowfoam honey that resembles toasted marshmallows so resulting braggot kind of tastes like a cup of hot cocoa.
Just don’t expect to find many of them year round. Though some such as Valhalla and Valkyrie aim to be flagships, the company is merely months old and, as Zaludek enthuses, “I’ve always brewed seasonally...Whatever I can get my hands on.”
Recently, he and Ames got their hands on an entire beehive. Ames got stung in the process of tossing it in the mash tun. They literally added the whole thing, over forty pounds worth of honey, into the brew. There’s single-hop IPA. Single-varietal wines. And now a single-hive braggot. I’ve never seen, heard of, or tasted anything quite like what Viking is doing, nor Fire Cirkl for that matter.
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.