Brewbot Interviews: Rob Lovatt of Thornbridge Brewery

Rob Lovatt is the head brewer at Thornbridge, one of Britain’s most well-respected breweries, where the likes of Jaipur, Kipling and St. Petersburg are produced. He talks to Brewbot about Tzara, a Kolsch-style beer, and his love for the German tradition.

I’ve been fascinated by German beer for a long time. I started getting to know that tradition when I first worked at Meantime, back in 2000 — we did loads of trips to Bavaria. It really opened my eyes to a different way of brewing; they’re very stylistic over there but what they do, they do very well.

Tzara is pale-golden, with restrained hop character and that bready, esterey note to it, from the relatively high fermentation temperatures — but its still relatively clean and crisp as well. It’s the sort of beer that you always want to drink, after work or whenever. It’s really refreshing, I’ve always got a bottle in the fridge. From the brewing perspective, its good too: there’s not too long a turnaround period — lagering is just three weeks. We keep it very traditional: it’s about 10 per cent wheat and the rest is pilsner malt, with a little bit of carapils.

I am passionate about the German tradition. There are lot of breweries over there doing one style — you know, you see a lot of breweries [over here] at the moment doing a thousand styles but they’re jack of all trades, master of none. Guys like Schneider, they do wheat beer, they’ve got it dialled in. It’s like with German brewing equipment; they do everything well. Everyone is trained over there, they take it very seriously.

Traditions

Thornbridge are known for our hoppy beers — like Jaipur or Chiron — but Tzara has been a really good seller. I’d say it was our second most-popular beer, after Jaipur. You can’t please everyone: a lot of people only like hoppy beers. I’ve even read some articles saying Thornbridge isn’t what it used to be, but what they mean is the beer isn’t heavily-hopped. There’s plenty of beers we do like that as well; Bear State, which we’ve just bought out, for example.

So we do get some criticism — people saying that we do boring beer — but we like to do a range of styles. That might sound contradictory given what I’ve said about German breweries focusing on one style, but we believe we’ve got the quality checks in place to make sure we can do that. That’s crucial.

Learning From The Masters

My approach to brewing has been moulded by my background. I studied microbiology at Sunderland before working at Scottish Courage; I then went to Meantime in 2000, right when it was new, and started at the bottom, and then Camden just as they were getting started. My boss at Meantime was an ex-head brewer of Shepherd Neame, Julian Herrington, and there was a guy called Eric Toft who runs Schonramer, a brewery in Bavaria, who was consultant to the brewery. When you’re trained by people that have worked in the industry for God knows how long, you really learn how to do it properly. I think you need to apply big brewery QC systems to craft breweries to get the quality and consistency. A lot of people are self-taught now — they make it up as they go along. I do think there’s a lack of skill in the industry.

Importance of Ingredients

I’m keen for people to be more aware of the importance of malt and yeast. I think malt will always be the poor cousin in terms of the attention it gets, hops will always be the most popular one. And as for yeast, we use seven different strains here — we recently introduced an old Yorkshire strain for our cask ales, which is working really well.

One of the things we’re working on at the moment is a barrel-aged programme. We’ve done a collaboration with Brooklyn and Garrett Oliver was over a few weeks ago to check on its progress. It’s a Belgian-style ale that’s been ageing in Bourbon barrels with some Cider lees from Oliver’s in Herefordshire. The beer is going to be re-fermented with Champagne yeast; we’re happy with where it is now so that’s going to be packaged soon.

And then there’s Jaipur X, our 10 per cent version of Jaipur, to celebrate the brewery’s 10th anniversary. I thought it was going to be a one-off brew but we’ve ended up making eight batches!

I envy homebrewers now. I don’t know much about Brewbot, but when you consider some of the equipment there is now, they’re spoilt for choice. They’ve got those brewing vessels you can get now, rather than the plastic buckets we used to have, they’ve got White Labs [yeast]. Advice? I think my tip for them would be make sure everything is clean, try and keep your oxygen out as much as possible after the initial fermentation. That’s the key.

What’s the Future?

I’d like there to be less focus on hops, but when you look at our sales it doesn’t seem likely. We brewed a Biere de Garde, it didn’t go crazy; If we do a hop beer it goes nuts. It’s interesting because it seems to me that in the States, they’re totally saturated with IPAs and people struggle to sell IPAs because every brewery has 3 or 4. I think we probably will get to that point where we’ve got too many IPAs but we’re not quite there yet.

We’re building a network of brewers and our Meet the Brewer interview series is one initiative to highlight the people that make the beer we love.

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