Ping! It’s an email from the chaps at Thornbridge with details of their Bracia chestnut honey beer, the one raved over by more than just me at the Guild of Beer Writers dinner last week. The press release details exactly what goes into the beer, and also reveals where they got the name from: Bracia is, they say, “the Celtic name for a beverage brewed in Iron Age Europe with reference found on a Roman inscription at Haddon Hall, Derbyshire … [made] with cereals and, most probably, honey”
Aargh, ooh, er, cripes, well, no, actually, very sorry, guys, you’re wrong. Bracia isn’t the name of a type of Celtic beer.
There is a word, bracis, which was known from Pliny’s Natural History, written around AD 77, and which he says is the Gallic name for a “ genus farris“, or type of grain.
The word was largely unknown apart from that one reference until the discovery of the Vindolanda tablets, wooden writing boards dating to the last years of the first century and early years of the second century AD found at a Roman fort a few miles south of the later Hadrian’s Wall, close to the modern English/Scottish border.
These tablets reveal, among many other fascinating facts about the lives of Roman soldiers in Britain around AD 100-120 (such as they wore socks with their sandals – very British), that they were supplied with locally brewed beer, which was made from bracis.
It’s not completely certain whether bracis is, as Pliny said, the name of a type of grain, or whether Pliny got it wrong and it’s actually the Gallic/Celtic/Brythonic word for malt. But the evidence is pretty much for bracis meaning malted grain: etymologically it looks to be related to proto-Indo-European words meaning “soft” or “rotten”, and malt is, of course, “softer” than raw grain.
In addition, the modern Welsh for malt is brag, and malthouse is bracty, while in North Wales the word for “to brew” is bracha (braguin standard Welsh) and the Welsh for “brewery” is bragdy. If all these aren’t descended from two more words found in the Vindolanda tablets and clearly derived from bracis, braciiarius, which looks to mean “maltster”, and braciarium, either “malthouse” or “brewery”, then I’m a Batavian.
Similarly the identical word in Gaul gave bracier in early French, today brasseur, brewer, via a supposed Late Latin word *braciare, and also brasserie, brewery. So “bracia” wasn’t the name of a beer, but bracis was the name for what beer was made from.
There was, indeed, a type of Welsh beer called bragaut (bragawd in modern Welsh, “bragget” in English), from a supposed Old Celtic word *bracata, which was made from wort fermented with honey, and the name of which was, again, derived from bracis. So to be fair, it’s not totally wrong to link old Celtic honey beers with a brand name like Bracia – except that the name the Celts used for such a brew was probably bracata.
Thornbridge says that “reference is found on a Roman inscription at Haddon Hall, Derbyshire” to Bracia. This would be the inscription on a Roman altarstone discovered at Haddon Hall, which is near Bakewell and not too far from Thornbridge, dating from probably the second or third century AD, and dedicated by a Roman soldier, Quintus Sittius Caecilianus, prefect of the first cohort of the Aquitanians, to “the god Mars Braciaca”.
It has been asserted, on no better evidence than that Braciaca is similar to bracis, that Braciaca was the Celtic god of brewing, combined here with the Roman god of war. But this is the only known mention of “Braciaca”, and as sceptics point out, Mars Braciaca could be simply one of the many Roman gods of locality: there are five known places in Roman Gaul called Braciacus. There is even one translation of the Latin words on the altar, MARTI BRACIACAE, as “Mars of the many arms”, from bracchium, “arm”.
Still, (chest)nuts to all that: whatever the inspiration, Stefano Cossi, Thornbridge’s head brewer, has made a terrific beer, using seven different malts – pale Maris Otter, brown, Munich, crystal, black, chocolate and peated – roasted barley, and five different hop varieties, Target, Pioneer, Hallertau, Northern Brewer and a new one to me, Sorachi Ace, developed, apparently by Sapporo in Japan as a cross between Brewer’s Gold and Saaz and described as having a lemony aroma, all then, apparently, refermented with chestnut honey from the Alpine foothills of North East Italy and given three months of cold maturation.
It’s bottle-conditioned, dark, complex, and a very deceptive nine per cent abv, and Stefano reckons that while very drinkable now (I’ll agree with that), “I think its flavour will mature and it is certainly a beer you can age for sometime and experience its evolution.” That’s if you can resist the call to drink it as soon as you get it, of course. The nice Alex Buchanan at Thornbridge has told me where my nearest supplier is, and
as soon as I’ve secured some bottles for me, I’ll let you know too … it’s Utobeer at Borough Market, right by London Bridge station – hurry, hurry …