A brew fit for a Viking

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Daniel McTavish (left), Addison Stern (right) and brewmaster Perry Ames (center) outside Viking Braggot Brewery. (Emerson Malone/Emerald)

Although they’re surrounded by a lab of high-end brewing technology, the employees of Viking Braggot, Eugene’s only braggot brewery, don’t need to use swords and axes to hack pumpkins and squashes for their brews. But they do it for the hell of it.

Brewery co-founders Daniel McTavish and Addison Stern,  along with brewmaster Perry Ames use these primitive weapons for their Ulfbehrt Double Pumpkin Wit (named for the legendary Viking sword) and their seasonal release winter squash porter. The former uses roasted pumpkins as a base with pumpkin blossom honey for the hefeweizen-style brew; for the latter, delicata winter squash and turnip honey fall into the mix.

“We brew on such a small system that we can really do fun hands-on things that bigger breweries can’t,” McTavish said. “You could just chop ‘em with a knife on a cutting board, but a sword’s more fun.”

This past Saturday, Viking Braggot celebrated its second anniversary.

Despite being located in the sprawl of west Eugene, Viking Braggot celebrated its second anniversary with a bustling attendance; the taproom offered air-conditioned refuge from the punishing midday sun for its bacon-braggot-sipping patrons. Attendants played card games, billiards and a chess match on a medieval-themed set under the string of lightbulbs suspended above the bar.

Outdoors, a duo performed live music with banjo and guitar as Eugene-based food truck Bacon Nation barbecued brisket, chicken and several side dishes, such as bacon mac and cheese — all because two former University of Oregon students decided to tap the power of a niche market.

McTavish and Stern were both studying business administration in the UO Lundquist College of Business entrepreneurship program. A group project involved conceptualizing a business model and identifying a potential headquarters. The concept of a “blue ocean” was repeated ceaselessly in the program. In any given industry, you want to find your own blue ocean where you can carve a niche to differentiate yourself from competitors.

They were interested in brewing, but a startup beer brewery seemed like a far-fetched idea in Oregon, where they’d have to compete against roughly 40 other breweries in the Willamette Valley alone.

“From the beginning we knew that beer was out,” Stern said. “With braggot, we found that it was sort of in the alternative category with ciders and meads. We saw it as a way to differentiate ourselves while staying in the beer industry.”

The class project became a tangible reality after they graduated in spring 2012. That December, McTavish and Stern signed a lease for a warehouse in West Eugene. They spent six months experimenting with recipes and purchasing equipment before finally opening their doors in June 2013.

Braggots are a delicate balance between grains, hops, honey and herbs. The brewery often crafts recipes with herbs and tea blends, including Tulsi tea and milk thistle seed.

During the Viking Age (793 – 1066 A.D.), the technology behind purified water wasn’t around. Pasteurization was centuries from being invented. Drinking the water could kill you, so anything you drank was either boiled or fermented.

Mead (which was expensive) and beer (which was cheap) were blended together to make braggot.

“It takes a long time to learn, especially with beer,” said Ames. “If you mess up something, you don’t know for a while, and you have to start over again.”

The brewing process – whether it’s beer, mead, cider or braggot – is conducive to plenty of trial and error. For McTavish and Stern, who began brewing braggot as juniors at the University of Oregon, the problem was finding the right yeast.

Since a braggot’s recipe uses honey for fermentation – with anywhere from 52 to 90 pounds of it in a 200-gallon, six-barrel batch – the brewing process can take a week or two longer than it takes to brew beer because the yeast needs to break down the complex sugars in honey and convert it to alcohol. If the yeast doesn’t eat the honey, it can be a cloyingly sweet brew. If it eats too much honey, it would wind up with about 18 percent alcohol by volume.

“With the braggot style, it’s a blank canvas,” McTavish said. “We can do whatever we want.”

A few other Oregon breweries offer a seasonal braggot – Falling Sky’s Nectar Braggot and Widmer Brothers’ Prickly Pear Braggot – but Viking Braggot is Eugene’s only brewery that produces exclusively braggots.

“I wish I could tell you how many [recipes] we’ve sold in these first two years,” said Stern. “It’s probably been over a hundred.”

The most popular brews at Viking Braggot are the year-round releases: Reverence Red, a red ale-style braggot brewed with orange blossom honey, and the Battle Axe IPA, an IPA-style braggot with wildflower honey and several hops. The website states the Battle Axe is a “Viking spin on our favorite Northwest style.” Another of Viking’s IPA-styles, the Pineapple braggot, is made with fresh-cut pineapple and tropical blossom honey that mask the bitter hops of a standard IPA.

“More can be done than an IPA – tone down the hops a bit, bring in some unique ingredients and flavor profiles and give people the next thing,” said Stern. “We want to help people move beyond the IPA.”

Glass for glass, Viking Braggot costs about the same as brews from Oregon’s other small craft breweries. It’s sold both bottled and on tap at roughly thirty growler fill stations, bars, markets and restaurants between Roseburg and Portland. It can be found in Eugene at Cornucopia, Growler University, Laughing Planet, Starlight Lounge and several other locations.

Ames, who’s actively researched Viking culture, notes that around 745 A.D. Viking raiders would ransack churches in England and come home with a bounty of stolen fortune.

“It was so easy and they got so much gold and treasure that when they went back home, everybody thought it was a good idea to join them. Scandinavia was getting kind of crowded,” Ames said on the brewery’s outdoor patio, “and there was a lot of young men looking for something to do.”

With that, Ames walked back inside Viking Braggot’s taproom, where an overhead banner reads: “Pillage Responsibly.”

This story was originally published for The Daily Emerald on June 29, 2015 at http://www.dailyemerald.com/2015/06/29/viking-braggot-brewery/

More stories I’ve written for the Emerald can be found here.

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