This post is going to be dedicated to the family brewer Harveys. It is always a joy to visit a town that is dominated by a brewery and a couple of weeks ago a visit to Lewes was in order so my wife could browse the antique shops. We parked on the banks of the River Ouse which gave us fine views of the brewery on the opposite bank. The smell of a working brewery filled the air and just a single sniff is enough to have my brain in gear for beer. The brewery was not our reason for visiting of course but there was time for a peek inside the brewery shop and purchase some of their bottled ales for sampling back at home.
Twenty years ago brewing in Sussex was dominated by King & Barnes in the western part and Harveys in the east. My preference was always for K&B but living in Horsham at the time may have had something to do with that. K&B has long since gone and Harveys remains as the oldest independent family brewer of Sussex. The Victorian gothic tower of the brewery remains a much loved Lewes landmark and brewing on the site goes back nearly 200 years. I'm becoming used to visiting modern micros located in bland industrial units so seeing a traditional brewery steeped in history is something special.
Living in West Sussex I do not come across Harveys beer a great deal although they do have a few very nice pubs in our area. Last night I was able to go through much of their cask range at the Western Sussex CAMRA social visit to the excellent White Horse at Rogate. This pub on the A272 midway between Midhurst and Petersfield is listed in the current GBG and is a lovely village local steeped in history as it dates back to the 16th century. Plenty of oak beams, a flagstone floor and a huge log fire make it a welcoming pub in winter and the garden at the rear is popular in the summer as it backs on to the village sports field and childrens playground.
Having previously tried the 3.5% IPA which I find to be a little bland I went through the other three beers last night. I began with the Sussex Best Bitter (4.0% ABV) which is a classic best bitter with quite a nice traditional English hoppy bitterness well balanced by a good malt character. From here I progressed to the Armada Ale (4.5% ABV) which had plenty of dry bitterness but lacking the floral fruity notes I remembered about it. The finish was very dry and long. Finally I tried their summer ale Olympia (4.3% ABV). This refreshing golden ale was much sweeter than the previous two bitters and this did have a fruity character. Overall the Sussex Best was probably my favourite but none of them compare to the amazing Old Ale (4.3% ABV) that comes out in the winter months. It is at this time that I will actively seek out a Harveys pub as this beer is quite magnificent and I suggest you do the same.
Their bottled beer range is extensive and I picked up four to try from my visit. The first of these was the Tom Paine Ale (5.5% ABV). Thomas Paine is famous as the author of 'The Rights of Man' but the strength of this beer, 1055, is the standard excise gravity to honour the fact that this political radical was an excise officer in Lewes between 1768 and 1774. It has a lovely malty aroma. The hop flavours are quite floral initially and they lead into a superb dry bitter finish. This is indeed a nicely balanced robust pale ale.
The second beer I chose was the limited edition Priory Ale (6.0% ABV). This beer is certainly different. It has been brewed with ingredients that were supposedly available to the Cluniac Order at the Priory of St Pancras in Lewes in 1264. It is brewed with wheat, oats and barley with hops and yarrow providing the bitterness. That all sounds good but then it is conditioned with ale cost (tansy), rosemary and thyme and the resultant ale smells exceptionally 'herby'. It is very sweet, aromatic and the strength of the rosemary I find to be too overpowering. It is an interesting beer for sure.
Next up is the Star of Eastbourne (6.5% ABV) and this seasonal bottled beer is produced annually each October. I'm not sure what the significance of the beer name is but Eastbourne is a traditional seaside town about 20 miles to the east of Lewes and the start point for the South Downs Way that runs close to Lewes. The beer is described as an old style IPA that was traditionally exported around the globe in the 19th century. The golden ale has a fruity hoppy aroma and there is a distinctive fruity floral hop character to the taste. It is highly refreshing with a very smooth dry bitter finish which makes it so easily drinkable which at 6.5% ABV can be quite dangerous!
Finally we come to the 7.5% ABV Elizabethan Ale. This beer is listed in the Roger Protz book '300 More Beers To Try Before You Die' and I confess to being a tad confused here. Here it is described as almost being black in colour with all the flavours that colour implies. Well I can only tell you about my version. It pours a little thinly and is a rich golden colour. There is a sweet alcoholic aroma to it and my wife thought it was a honey beer after tasting it. It does have a certain resemblance to the liquid centre of honey and lemon lockets but this sweetness disperses in the finish where there is a slight spicy bitterness. Even the Harveys website suggest there is black malt in the recipe and it has been modelled on the dark barley wines prevalent at the time of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. It is a nice beer but not what I was expecting or what I expect from a barley wine.
A trip to Lewes should be on the agenda of every beer lover. Not only is it a town that is dominated by a historical working brewery but it is also full of many fine independent shops, has a marvellous castle and has a large number of excellent pubs. The tiny free house, the Gardeners Arms, is my pick of the bunch and it is a short walk from the Harveys brewery shop.