By Brendan Witt
Braggot brings together the best of beer and mead into one fermented beverage, and for cider makers the lesser-known drink “graf” achieves similar harmony between cider and beer.
The Origins of Graf
As the story goes, graf was a fantastical, apple-based beer that appeared in the popular Stephen King series The Dark Tower. The specifics of graf aren’t discussed in detail, other than the incorporation of apples amd malt in a drink that can either be sessionable or quite strong. Whether by coincidence or direct inspiration from the book series, homebrewers began brewing their own versions of graf to create a hybrid of cider and beer in one drink, a note that even the Dark Tower wiki page references.
One of the most comprehensive conversations surrounding graf can be found on HomebrewTalk where recipes and processes have been discussed and developed to create something worthy of our palates.
The Many Types of Graf
“Apple-based beer” is a general set of parameters, which leads to a wide variety of interpretations by homebrewers. In some instances, graf is a majority apple juice (~80%), with a small batch of lightly-hopped pale ale wort brewed and blended in prior to a fermentation that’s conducted by a clean ale yeast. This example makes for a cider-forward graf with a nearly undetectable beer character. Instead, the sweetness of the malt and the low bitterness of the hops add complexity to store-bought apple juices, which can mimic the use of bitter-sweet and bitter-sharp apples that are traditionally used to make high quality dry ciders in Europe and some parts of America, but not easily obtainable by the homebrewer.
Some brewers, on the other hand, are making more evenly proportioned mixtures of beer and cide, and in typical homebrew fashion, the envelope of flavor combinations is being pushed.
Base styles have been all over the map, from pale ales to stouts and lagers to Belgians, to impart different malt character to the apple juice. As more and more specialty malts are utilized, and the proportion of beer increased, graf can transform into a true beer-cider hybrid drink, though balance still tends to give way to the cider character.
Yeast selection can really take things to the next level, with some graf makers using Belgian-style yeasts to impart spicy, estery components or lager yeasts to prevent apple aromas form being blow off as they are during warmer fermentations. Some brewers go on to add spices and other adjuncts to twist things up a bit and even wood-aging to add some of that beloved barrel complexity.
Being that there are no defined style guidelines for graf…yet…it’s really up to the brewer to decide what they desire, which leaves a great deal of room for creativity. A good place to start when formulating a new recipe is to mix some store bought dry ciders with some of your different styles of homebrew to see how the different characteristics interact. Then, do a few 1-gallon test batches to hone in a recipe before scaling up.
How to Brew Graf
In the most simplest terms, graf is simply mixing apple juice with beer wort and fermented, usually with an ale yeast. The beer component is most easily made as an extract batch, but you all-grainers can do a small brew in a bag mash if desired.
Fermentation temperatures should follow the guidelines of the specific yeast being used. A blow off system or ample head space in the fermenter is recommended since the fermenting wort and cider creates quite a bit of kraeausen.
Some homebrewers will ferment the beers and ciders separately and then blend to taste, though there is some debate on whether or not that still qualifies as graf.
Once the graf has fermented out completely, it can be bottle conditioned or kegged as you would any homebrewed beer. A good rule of thumb is to carbonate to levels that the beer style used would normally be, but slightly higher carbonation can be very nice in lighter, cider-forward examples of graf.
A past episode of Brewing TV covers some of the exciting directions graf can be taken to create a deliciously interesting beer and cider hybrid drink.