Thursday, 18 November 2010

Lovibonds Sour Grapes and 69 IPA

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.


  1. Delighted to see a commercial brewer doing what home brewers do -- putting out a beer that didn't turn out as expected because it still tastes good.

    (Home brewers except me, that is: proudly infection-free since 2009.)

  2. Thanks Mark, We decided not to label the Sour Grapes as Lambic or a Gueuze as technically it was not derived from spontaneous fermentation but is instead inoculated as you mention above.

    We wouldn't want the EU coming after us for breaching a product description!! Hence the "Homage to Gueuze" tag line on the pump clip, our salute to the great tradition that is sour beer...

    Jason Stevenson
    Lovibonds Brewery

  3. "Horse Blanket" belongs in the previous post :-)

  4. It's a funny one 'horse blanket', as I know exactly what my fellow beer nerds mean by it but I've no idea if it's in any way related to an actual horse blanket.

  5. TBN - They embraced the unexpected and then put it in a wine barrel!

    Jason - cheers for that! I see you've now added a shot of the tap clip to the facebook page - I was looking for one earlier.

    Ed - I have officially smelt a horse blanket. And a horse. The things I do for research...

  6. @ Jason. Are Lambic and Geuze PDO now? If there is any beer that can be it is them. Your beers are fantastic, thank you for bringing them down south.

    @ Mark. I can't agree more with everything you said except "Champagne-like aroma". Brett etc etc have no place in sparkling wine production at all and I'd pay money on a bet that if you gave Sour-Grapes to a Champenois s/he would turn their nose up in abject horror. Their loss mind you. On the palate, the pH levels are probably comparable so structurally there are similarities but the nature of that acidity is different. *runs off back to writing dull wine education text books*

    @ Beer Justice. I think "Horse Blanket" is OK(ish). I can't think of anything else on earth that smells or tastes like lambic styled beers so creative descriptors are pretty much all you have left. As I am sure you know, once you have tried a few "Horse Blanket" sort of makes sense.

  7. Good point Nick, that is an oversight on my part... What I mean is more the wine-like quality from the barrel which creep out nicely into the aroma. I don't think the brett necessarily overpowered it on the nose, even though it was evident (though this is from a beer POV and give that to a wine buff and they'dd think differently, I'm sure!)

  8. Nick, I believe they are, when searching the web I found various statements like this.

    "The Names Gueuze and Lambic are protected under Belgian (since 1965) and European (since 1992) law"


  9. Mark, don't get me wrong I thought Sour-Grapes was top class stuff. I was just being a pedantic so and so on his lunch break :-) As far as I understnad it juggling with these microbes is about as easy as predicting the lottery so Lovibinds have really pulled off a blinder. I really like Brett aromas in certain beers but their presence in wine is one of those controversies similar in its ferocious intensity to the cask/keg set-to that has been going on recently. I once tried some colleagues on geuze, it didn't go well, Duchesse went even worse!

  10. Hey thanks Mark, great to see you the other night, glad you liked the beers.

    I like the term Wild Beer!

    PDO aside, it probably can't be called a Lambic as it isn't 100% spontaneously fermented, we did pitch our house wheat yeast. However, we had some spontaneity with the lactobaccillus infection.

    Is it Gueze? Close, but not quite. It is technically a blend, but not in the traditional sense.

    What was actually put into these barrels was a blend of more than one lacto-mistake along with some freshly fermented (clean) wheat beer, plus the Brett starters that you mentioned.

    I think Dan Carey of New Glarus said, "Never underestimate the value of a mistake".

    That helped us to stay positive when we had most of this beer go down the drain. Beer that needed to go out the door the next day.

    Unfortunately, we've had 1% of the beer we've done so far go south. Word to the wise, don't have a 14 IBU wheat beer as your flagship. ;0 You won't sleep very well at night!

    Can we repeat it? Not sure, the idea with these barrels is that the bugs are now there and we will be packaging (possibly blending) this sour into 75cl bottles. We'll then feed these barrels some more low IBU wheat beer and hopefully the beer Gods will be with us and we'll come up with another tasty result.

    Stay tuned...

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  12. Was a great night and the beers were fantastic. I deliberately steered clear of reading this blog until I'd finished my own, interesting to see some similarities and some differences.

    Ultimately, I’m with you though ... you could drink pint after pint of that Sour Grapes and not think twice about it. 75cl bottles sound good to me!

  13. Cheers for clearing that up Jeff - I got the rest of the info from Pete. Fingers crossed the next stuff will infect so wonderfully!