Bracia: great beer, shame about the dodgy history

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.

Thornbridge's Bracia
Thornbridge's Bracia

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 …

5 thoughts on “Bracia: great beer, shame about the dodgy history

  1. At Thornbridge we take great pride in what we do and we are by no means superficial. Behind the technical decisions during the brewing process there is constant meticulous research and experimentation. And we apply the same principles to everything we do.
    Being very fastidious and inquisitive, I did a lot of research for the name Bracia and came across a few sources (including the little gem that is “Amber, Gold and Black”) reporting different interpretations for the root brac-.
    I have studied Latin language for five years and I had to deal with endless and intricate translations of passages by Cicerone, Giulio Cesare and Plinio. I learned too well how Latin lends itself to interpretation.
    During my research, one of the interpretations on bracia was offered by the the book “Del Vino d’Orzo” (“On the Wine made from Barley”, unfortunately only available in the Italian language, where bracia is a term used to indicate an Ale brewed in Iron Age Europe. The book is a very comprehensive resource on the subject of beer’s archaeology and has been published under the patronage of the Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities. An extract from the book has also been published on “Birra e Malto” (“Beer and Malt”) the technical publication of the Italian Association of Brewers and Maltsters (AITBM). Here, the term bracia is mentioned again and honey is listed as a highly possible ingredient. Can anyone state that this source is “wrong”?
    Although the historical connection may have come across as simplistic on the press release and this should probably have read “Bracia may have been…” rather than “Bracia is…”, I have hopefully made it clear that the subject has been researched with care.
    And I can hardly accept the use of the word “dodgy” as it may imply dishonesty on our part.
    However, I agree with you that Bracia is a great beer.
    Stefano Cossi, Head Brewer

  2. Stefano, thank you for your thorough and dignified response to my comments about the name of your Bracia beer, which obviously came across as far ruder than I intended them to be, and if I have offended you I am genuinely sorry.
    I am sure your research and scholarship were very thorough, judging by the care and commitment that you clearly put into making your beer. It was wrong of me to rush in and criticise your name without finding out more about why you had chosen it, and I shouldn’t have used the word “dodgy”.

    As it happens the whole bracis subject is something I have been interested in for six or seven years, and even before your beer came out I had amassed a fair degree of evidence about the roots and useage of bracis. The subject is covered in Bowman, AK and Thomas, JD, The Vindolanda Writing Tablets (Tabulae Vindolandenses II), British Museum, 1994 and Bowman and Thomas,
    Vindolanda: The Latin Writing-Tablets, Britannia Monograph Series No 4,1984, which talk about its occurance in the Vindolanda tablets, and Max Nelson, The Barbarian’s Revenge, A History of Beer in Ancient Europe, Routledge, 2005.

    Max Nelson¹s book, in case you don’t know it, is easily the best treatment of beer in Classical times in English: he’s the assistant professor of Classics at the University of Windsor in Canada, and the first person to write about ancient brewing in English from a standpoint of good knowledge about brewing technology and classical languages. However, it doesn’t look as if he was aware of the Italian research you based the name of your beer on. It’s a great pity it’s not available in English.

    For what it’s worth I think you have a perfectly valid argument for calling your beer Bracia, although I notice in the paper you refer to the word bracia is prefixed by *, the “etymologist’s asterisk”, which, of course, is the sign used by linguists to indicate that “we don’t actually have any hard evidence for the existence of this word, we’re just making an educated guess that it quite probably existed based on what else we know.” So Bracia is an Italian scholar’s guess at a possible genuine Celtic beer name, and one that the English-speaking world wasn’t aware of, hence my impetuous denunciation.

    Still, I think it’s perfectly valid to say, based on what we know, that with Bracia-the-beer you’re reflecting a genuine Celtic tradition of brewing with honey, and I think such a beer, based on the later Welsh word for a honeyed beer, bragawd, was probably called by the ancient Celts something like *bracata, to which Bracia is clearly related.

    I also think it’s perfectly valid to mention the Marti Braciacae altar at Haddon Hall, especially when it’s so close to Thornbridge: the “brewer” interpretation of the dedication seems just as valid as any other (and certainly more valid, it seems to me, that “Mars of the many arms”).

    Overall, however, it doesn’t matter what the beer is called, it is indeed a great one, and I have no doubt it will do very well indeed.

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