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How I Created … Lovibonds Sour Grapes

Lovibonds Sour Grapes
by Jeff Rosenmeier

Doing beer checks one day in the brewery, I noted that the last batch of our Henley Gold wheat beer was slower to start than normal, but the beer had finally formed a kräusen and it looked like the fermentation would carry on as normal.

Lovibonds Sour GrapesTwo days later and the story had changed dramatically. As anyone who has brewed with a true wheat beer strain will tell you, this yeast can really go for it, often jumping out of the tank.

What I saw in the FV was something I had never seen before. There was still a vigorous fermentation going on, as you could see the surface of the beer ‘boiling’, however, there was no kräusen.

I pulled a sample and, before I got it anywhere near my nose, I knew it was sour. I’m not sure I can put into words the feeling brewers have when the inevitable happens in their brewery.

Sure, losing the money spent on ingredients and wasting a 12-hour brew day sucks, but the biggest problem, when brewing at capacity, is that that beer is already sold. I knew in two weeks we would run out of our best-selling beer and have to deal with the consequences.

A look at this beer under the microscope confirmed that it was loaded with lactobacillus bacteria, which must have finally out competed my weak yeast pitch. After much thought, we decided not to dump this beer down the drain. It wasn’t Henley Gold, by any stretch of the imagination, but it tasted really good.

Tasting Room Trials

One of the great things about having a tasting room is that you can use your regular customers as guinea pigs. We produced a few kegs and the regulars liked it as much as we did. Cider drinkers got it, white wine drinkers got it, even the normal beer drinkers got it, albeit with some raised eyebrows. Sour Grapes was born.

We knew we could sell a couple kegs over our bar, and maybe a couple to the few accounts that would understand this beer, but what to do with the rest of it? The sourness was pretty much spot on, what was missing was the funkiness you’d get from a spontaneously-fermented Belgian gueuze, so I went on the hunt for some wine barrels.

I got really lucky and tracked down three barrels with a great pedigree, recently emptied of ageing Pinot Noir. We are fortunate to have a 200-year-old cellar in our building in Henley that is perfect for this sort of stuff. Once we figured out how to get the barrels and the beer down there, we filled them with 75% Sour Grapes and 25% Henley Gold.

Over the next couple weeks we made up three different starter cultures from: a) dregs of a Drie Fonteinen Oude Geuze, one of my favourites; b) dregs of a Oud Beersel Oude Geuze; and c) a commercial vial of Brettanomyces bruxellensis. We pitched a starter into each barrel, bunged them up and closed the cellar door.

From about a year onwards, these barrels started tasting really good and we began to pull some out for meet-the-brewers events, beer launches or other occasions, all to rave reviews. When we did pull a keg or two from the barrels, we would simply top them up with freshly fermented Henley Gold in a haphazard, solera-type way.

Nearly three years after dropping this beer into our cellar, it was time to package it and we did some blending trials. Sadly barrel number 2, with the Oude Beersel starter, didn’t make the grade as it had acquired a very strong sulphur aroma that spoilt every blend.

In the end we decided that a 50/50 mix of barrels 1 and 3 gave us the most complex blend of sour and funkier Brettanomyces aromas and flavours.

Full Circle

The World Beer Cup is organised by the US based Brewers Association and held in conjunction with their Craft Brewers Conference (CBC). It costs a lot of money to enter these competitions, but I had already made plans to attend my first CBC, so I thought I would roll the dice and enter a couple of our beers. Little did I know that my life was about to go full circle.

Jeff Rosenmeier LovibondsI started homebrewing after buying Charlie Papazian’s Complete Joy of Homebrewing book. Charlie now heads the Brewers Association and is partly responsible for getting so many people brewing in the US and the craft beer explosion that has followed.

After a week in San Diego, tasting so many amazing beers, I pretty much wrote off the competition and in no way expected anything to come of it.

The awards dinner for the World Beer Cup is a bit of a whirlwind as Charlie rushes to present over 250 awards on the night. I happened to look up just as the Wood and Barrel Aged Sour Beer category hit the big screen.

Bronze to The Bruery in California and silver to Snake River from Wyoming. I thought, oh well, I’ve had an amazing week, there is always the next competition and – KABOOM! – gold award to Lovibonds Sour Grapes.

I shed tears of disbelief for what seemed like a mile walk to the stage and accepted the award from the very person who was responsible for getting me into beer some 15 years earlier. So far, the best moment I’ve had in beer.

And that is how we created Sour Grapes. We’ve since come up with a method to sour our wheat beer intentionally in the brewhouse and have refilled the two original barrels and purchased an additional seven barrels, all of which are progressing nicely.

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