Lovibonds’ Sour Grapes is sensational. There’s no need to build up to it, I’ll just throw it straight out there. It started as a beautiful mistake when a batch of wheat beer caught an ‘infection’ and started to sour. They poured most of it away but, because they liked where the taste was going and knowing that a bit of lactic acidity isn’t the worst thing in the world, they held some back and put it on tap at the brewery in Henley – it sold out in a weekend.
Sour beer is an acquired taste. It’s not like a pint of bitter that’s gone bad and tastes like someone’s spitefully added old milk and lime. These beers have been knowingly inoculated with wild yeasts to turn their beer a particular way. The lambics and gueuze of Belgium are the classics of the style but American brewers are experimenting with wild ales with increasing regularity. They can range from subtle to eye-watering; from a spritz of sherbet to sharp lemon or sour vinegar. Many are aged to allow their flavour to properly develop, this means they often come with unrivalled complexity and flavour, particularly those also aged in wood (which most are). A number of different yeasts can be used, from the naturally airborne ones to specific varieties; the most widely know is called Brettanomyces (or just Brett) and it’s responsible for a lemony, horse blanket, leathery flavour – other yeasts give more or different levels of sourness.
With their beer, Lovibonds bought three Pinot Noir wine barrels which were previously used to hold English sparkling wine. Each barrel was filled with beer and inoculated with a different yeast: barrel one got pure Brettanomyces bruxellensis, the Brett native to the Brussels area and the one used for the classics of the style; the second got the yeast from a bottle of Oud Beersel and the third is from Drie Fonteinen. The aim was originally to blend the beers to make the best combination, a practice used in Belgium which separates lambic from gueuze: lambic is a vintage from one batch of beer; gueuze is a blend of any number of vintages from different barrels. The Sour Grapes that Lovibonds took to The Rake on Monday was an unblended (the tap clip said gueuze but it was lambic) keg of the pure Brett barrel (they will likely blend the others in the future).
The result is a 4.6% beer, crystal clear and evidently Champagne-like in aroma. The sharpness hits the tongue immediately but it mellows almost as fast, leaving lemons and wine. Behind that there’s a biscuity, bready flavour which perfectly counters the sour, then comes the barrel adding a depth of wood, some texture and something which I often get in these beers – wotsits. Not like the finger-staining cheese flavour, more like the after taste, that savoury hit on the swallow. Lambic and gueuze is not generally the sort of thing to drink by the pint but Sour Grapes is something I could happily drink two or three of, where the sharp flavour is refreshing rather than rasping and each mouthful is interesting. It’s a definite British stamp on a Belgian classic and an American vogue style and it works very well - everyone else must’ve liked it too as it sold out halfway through the night. Hopefully what’s left of the other three barrels will come out soon...
The reason we were at The Rake on a Monday night was for the launch of 69 IPA (Lovibonds brought other beers with them, including the Sour Grapes and a keg version of Dark Reserve). It’s a 6.9% American-style IPA hopped with Warrior and Centennial. It also undergoes a unique dry-hopping where an old keg has been converted to include a hop filter and a flo-jet and the beer is pumped and circulated through hops for four days – two days with Centennials and two days with Columbus. The ‘Hopinator’, as it’s known, adds an intense aroma to the beer, picking up all the leafy aromatics from the hops but little extra bitterness (it’s like a Randall the Enamel Animal only more prolonged). It’s another beer which stands apart from the others in its category. The hops are monsterous, the aroma is like a cloud around your face made from bitter oranges and the finish is long, dry and intense, calling you back for another mouthful to get that sweet hit of caramel at the beginning. It’s big and bold and all the better for it – it’s a taste of West Coast America brewed next to the Thames. I also love the tap handle and bottle label (the bottled version, incidentally, is less heavy-hitting on the hops and very easy drinking).
Lovibonds are making some fantastic beers and they are different. One thing that can’t be said about the brewery is that they are copying anyone else: they stick to kegs, their range is tight and well built (a wheat beer, an amber, a dark ale made with home-smoked malt and stronger versions of the wheat and dark) and the brews look and taste great. I wish I could get their beers in more places, particularly the two headliners in this post. They have a tap room open at the weekends in Henley which generally serves all their range and I should get over their sometime – so should everyone else (it’s also a lovely town!). Whenever the keg revolution properly begins in the UK (which it will!) they will already be there to wave it in, slap it on the back and say: “It’s about bloody time too. Now here, try this!”
I got the pictures from the Lovibonds facebook page.