Beer: the mistake that beat the world
Britons tend to return disappointed from World Cups; the tradition is to skulk off amid bitter recriminations just as the real meat of the competition is getting started…but that’s not how it always goes. There are exceptions. One such came at the World Beer Cup – yes, even beer now has a world cup – in San Diego this month. Jeff Rosenmeier of the Lovibonds Brewery in Henley carried off one of the much-coveted gold medals for his beer, Sour Grapes. But before breaking out the Union Jack bunting, it’s worth noting that like many of the greatest British triumphs, this victory relied on foreign help: Rosenmeier is American.
Then again, most of the breweries feted at the World Cup march under the Stars and Stripes. “If anyone could be said to have won the World Cup, it was California,” says competition judge Alastair Hook, the founder of, and head brewer at, London’s Meantime. But those who sneer at an event organised by and staged in America that largely hails American brewers are wrong, says Hook: the judging process, he says, could not be fairer.
Rosenmeier, whose beer won the wood and barrel-aged sour beer category (there are, it must be said, a dizzying variety of categories), agrees. “I heard some bullshit – that it’s like the [baseball] World Series, not a real world competition,” he says. “Trust me: it’s the World Beer Cup. These guys have put on one hell of a competition. All the judging is done blind, it’s all done right. To get beers from 58 countries and judges from 30 countries – that says something about its credibility.”
Given that, it’s no wonder Rosenmeier is still buzzing after his success. The only other British brewery to be recognised was Derbyshire’s Thornbridge, which took bronze in the American-style Black IPA category. “It was a lot to take in – I was completely blown away,” Rosenmeier says. “When the results were announced, they said that bronze went to some guys in California, silver to a brewery in Wyoming. I was like ‘there you go, oh well,’ and then it came up that the winner was Lovibond’s. ‘No way!’ was my reaction.”
Britain’s relative lack of success can be partly put down to the fact that so few breweries entered – but Rosenmeier understands why that was. “It’s tough to enter,” he says. “It cost a lot of money. Getting beer into America is expensive – I’d say that it was around £1000 just to get [the three beers I entered] in. I can see why some brewers did not enter.”
Sour Grapes itself is interesting. It’s a Berliner Weisse, a type of wheat beer native to the German capital which boasts a refreshing, tart sourness that is the result of the introduction of a certain type of bacteria during fermentation. Rosenmeier’s beer, however, was not supposed to be a Berliner Weiss: it was a happy accident, a result of the fact that the beer he was trying to make – a low-bitterness wheat beer, Lovibond’s Henley Gold – is susceptible to infection. “Several years ago, I was making our wheat beer and the fermentation had a very sluggish start,” he says. “I tasted it a few days later and it was sour. But not sour like vinegar – not acetic, but lactic acid bacteria. It tasted great.”
Having got hold of some French oak wine barrels, Rosenmeier (right) decided to age the beer, adding Brettanomyces (known as Brett) – a yeast that produces a variety of flavours, from tart acidity to farmyard funk, that are increasingly valued by the world’s foremost craft brewers. The coveted Lambic beers of the Senne Valley – to the south of Brussels – owe much of their unique character to this yeast. “I’d never tasted a true Berliner Weiss at that time so I didn’t know what we had on our hands – but [this beer] was missing the funk, those earthy flavours you get from Brett,” says Rosenmeier.
“It was just straight up sourness. I got some barrels, which had been used a number of times – in France and then by a sparkling wine producer in England – so that they didn’t have any oak flavour, and we put them in this long cellar we have here in Henley, where we do our aging. We mixed the sour beer with the same again of half-fermented Henley Gold. We then made up a starter of Brett and forgot about it for a while. We’ve been serving it over the last few years, at tastings in London.”
Anyone who wants to taste Sour Grapes will have to be quick. There isn’t a great deal of it left – and Rosenmeier (who, understandably enough, is intending to produce more in the future) doesn’t plan to send any outside of Henley. “The sad thing is I’ve won this award, and I don’t even have the beer to sell,” he says. “I think we’re going to sell it at our brewery tap – we’ve had calls from Norway and Sweden but I’m only going to get 700 bottles of it and to be honest, I’m thinking of selling it all in my shop so people have to come to us.”
Sour beers are increasingly fashionable in the US now. In Britain, some of the more open-minded brewers have started experimenting: it would be no surprise to see a number of domestically-produced sour beers – albeit it in limited quantities due to the time and care needed to produce them – on the market in the next few years. It’s a sign that Britain’s brewers are starting to follow the same path trodden by their American counterparts over the past 20 years. “The buzz in America right now is crazy,” says Rosenmeier. “If our next 20 years are like their last 20 years, we’re going to have a great time. You look at the numbers: 1000 breweries are apparently ‘in planning’ at the moment in the States.”
Follow @Will_Hawkes on TwitterTagged in: ale, beer, california, food, lovibonds, world cup
Recent Posts on Notebook
- Justice for sale but who pays for the cost?
- The Road to the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc - Majorca 70.3 Ironman
- The Retail Ready People project means the future of the high street is in your hands
- Don't get mad about Amazon and make the right ethical choice
- Chagos: Conservationists are swimming in murky waters
Latest from Independent journalists on Twitter