Monday, 9 September 2019

Cream of the crop

My recent post about how judging the quality of beer contains a large element of subjectivity was prompted by Boak & Bailey defending Matthew Curtis’ right to say he liked Harvey’s beer. It certainly seems to be true that they attract a fair bit of affection from the craft fraternity.

Much of the contemporary British craft beer movement seems to have set out its stall by pitching itself in opposition to the established real ale scene, both in terms of “boring brown twiggy bitter” and the wider culture surrounding it of socks and sandals, folk-singing and steam railway preservation. But Harvey’s is one of the select band of established family brewers who seem to be an exception to this.

So why might this be the case? They are fairly close to London, which inevitably gives them a higher profile. I think they only have a couple of pubs in the capital, but they have an extensive free trade, often cropping up in those pubs that are viewed as making an effort on the beer front. On the other hand, they haven’t succumbed to the lure of getting large-scale deals with the major pub companies, which may bring more distribution, but inevitably leads to a drop in quality at the point of sale and an element of familiarity breeds contempt. They have also not gone for national supermarket distribution for their bottled beers, which is a low-margin, cut-throat business and again will erode the feeling of exclusiveness.

They have added to their pub estate piecemeal over the years – the latest Good Beer Guide gives a figure of 48 – but it hasn’t grown to the extent where they start being accused of high-handed practices towards their tenants and imposing bland corporate uniformity. And, most importantly, they do actually brew some very good beer. They have a range of products, have produced various seasonal and limited editions, and have even dabbled in the more crafty side of things. But their flagship product is undoubtedly Sussex Best Bitter, of which Mike Dunn in his 1986 book Local Brew says:

This is a magnificent beer, one of the truly great and distinctive bitters which are still available; quite sharp to the palate but nevertheless essentially malty in character, it i s regarded as well suited to local tastes and so, very reassuringly, there are no plans to follow other, more short-sighted, breweries by reducing its distinctive nature.
And the same still holds true thirty-three years later. It’s perhaps the archetypal example of the classic English balanced country bitter, and it makes no concessions to modern craft trends. But I think part of the affection for it stems from people saying “well, that’s not really my style of beer, but within that category that’s the one I like.” That’s an entirely reasonable stance, and not in any sense insincere. Many people might say something similar about whiskies, or blue cheeses. You can’t have an in-depth experience of everything. There may also be an element of “revealed preference”, with people saying they like it, but not in practice making a great deal of effort to seek it out.

It’s interesting to look at how Harveys have risen to this position of pre-eminence. Going back forty years, they were just a small curiosity in the roll-call of independent breweries, to be be filed alongside the likes of Burts and Paines. According to the 1978 Good Beer Guide, they had a mere 24 pubs, of which only half sold real ale. They also provided beer to the 26 pubs of their erstwhile local rivals Beards, who had closed their own brewery in the early 1950s due to a yeast infection, but only half of these had real ale. Yes, their beer was good, but in the South-East south of the Thames Gales, King & Barnes, Youngs and Shepherd Neame were more highly regarded.

But, since them, under the stewardship of Miles Jenner, who combined the roles of Joint Managing Director and Head Brewer, the company slowly but steadily advanced. It maintained the quality of its core beers, while expanding its range, increasing its pub estate and developing its free trade. And, partly due to others falling by the wayside, it’s emerged at the front of the pack in that part of the world. Three of the breweries I mentioned have gone, while Shepherd Neame seem to have sacrificed beer quality on the altar of expansion.

Over the years, I can’t say I’ve drunk a huge amount of Harvey’s beer, as it is rarely seen in my part of the world. I’ve probably not had more than thirty pints of it in total, despite having both been on a pub crawl of Lewes and had a holiday in Eastbourne, two things that I suspect few of my readers have done. But I’ve had enough to say that, in my view, Sussex Best is one of my favourite cask beers, and one of the best beers of its category in the country. It’s definitely one that would spring out from the bar when I walked into a pub.

But I’m not convinced it really does stand head-and-shoulders above its competitors. Last month, I had an excellent pint of John Smith’s Cask in Preston, and recently I’ve had several very good drops of Black Sheep Bitter. Are they as good as Harvey’s? Probably not. But they’re certainly in the same general ballpark of quality when well-kept. And, if I was marooned on a desert island and could only drink one beer for the rest of my life, I would probably choose Draught Bass in preference, and certainly Batham’s Best.

If you decide Harvey’s is the one trad beer you like, that’s fair enough. But if you then dismiss Wadworth’s 6X, Palmer’s IPA and Brain’s SA as boring brown bitters, then you’re just demonstrating your own ignorance.

19 comments:

  1. "Are they (Black Sheep, John Smith's, 6X etc) as good as Harvey’s? Probably not. But they’re certainly in the same general ballpark of quality when well-kept."

    Great piece, spot-on conclusion. But unless you're brave enough to try those BBBs in pubs with good cellarmanship and fast turnover you'd never know. I'd love to know if Harvey's is actually made with better ingredients than Black Sheep or 6X, or whether the pre-eminence of Harvey's is just sentiment.

    It's a great beer, but I could take you to a fair few GBG gastropubs in Sussex where you'd struggle to score a 3.

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    1. Yes, my most recent memories of Harveys, in Brighton last year and Haywards Heath this year, were both poor. Not, I guess, the brewer's fault, but nevertheless the memory lingers. And makes the memories of previous good experiences harder to access.

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    2. Yes, any cask beer is only as good as the cellarperson who looks after it.

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    3. One might legitimately argue that the cellar man has so much more influence on the taste than the brewer that it is impossible to say that one beer is better than another unless they are stored and served in the same establishment.

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  2. Great post. You really made a lot of points here. Really an enjoyable read and well thought out.

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  3. I was delighted to see Sussex Best on the bar at the Free Trade Inn last week and it scored an easy 4/5. Harveys have always been very rare up here even since most beers seem to be available everywhere at some point. It's a fine example but as you say, there are plenty of others, all great examples of the style when they're treated to good cellarmanship which seems to be increasingly uncommon.

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  4. "despite having both been on a pub crawl of Lewes"
    If it was anytime between 1985 and 1999 then we may well have been in the same pub seeing as I drank pretty much every night in Lewes between those times. Happy days.

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    1. This would have been about 1982-83, on a Saturday lunchtime. I don't actually think I went in that many Harvey's pubs.

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  5. As readable as ever. My impression is that a few years ago it was consistently very good as others fell by the wayside, King and Barnes in particular. Also Sussex is a bit of a craft brewery centre and Harvey's pubs in Brighton and Lewes did it no harm on the craft front. And it had a lot of support from Jeff Bell at the Gunmakers in London.
    On a personal front, about 10 years ago I had a polypin over Christmas period stored in a cellar-cool garage. I remember it was still excellent after 10 days. Perhaps it's ability to clear quickly and keep well is a key attribute.

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    1. Good point about Jeff and the Gunmakers. Really turned my head 10 years ago as to how good it could be. Shame he didn't work his magic on Arkells 3B!

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  6. Harvey's seem to be modernising their brand a bit these days, there are definite signs of Adnamification. If Bathams sold their beer in London the craft lot would love it. Maybe McMullen's AK will have its moment.
    AP

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  7. Living where I do on the Kent-Sussex border, I've probably drunk more pints of Harvey's Best in the course of a lifetime's drinking than any other beer. It would definitely be my desert island beer.

    It is easy to keep and drops bright really quickly, as Wickingman observed, but that could be why Retired Martin has found so many indifferent pints on his travels.

    Licensees are either serving it too young, or are keeping it on too long, due to slow turnover in food oriented gastro pubs.

    Martin asks about ingredients and Harvey's make no secret that they include a portion of flaked maize in the beer. Personally speaking I don't feel this does any harm.

    I can't comment too much on the other beers mentioned. I like Black Sheep, but have never been a fan of Wadworth 6X. This isn't because I regard it as a boring brown bitter; I just find it far too malty for my tastes.

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    1. Good point about beer dropping bright quickly. This encourages inexperienced (most) people who are running a cellar to think that the beer is ready for sale. In many cases they'd be right as a great many micro breweries use conditioning tanks and their cask beers rarely have any secondary fermentation - they're just not kegged. The problem is that genuine cask beers won't be ready for a few days even if they look ready.

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  8. In London, I think its star has been buoyed by two pubs: The Harp which was voted best pub in the UK and has always had it on, and the Royal Oak - run by Harvey's and an upstairs room hosts the SBPW. These two pubs are celebrities for cask ale in the capital.

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    1. not always, last time I tried it at the Harp, they had to chuck it down the sink as it was off,the replacement wasnt much better either, cant say I was that impressed or since when Ive visited. And Ive tended to avoid the Best since on the assumption its the classic "old skool" beer that sits on the bar, and especially in Brighton or craft heavy venues, when theres a stack of stuff more likely to be fresher and turned over more. Why Harveys escapes the atypical nonsense about not being a heavily hopped forward beer producer, probably lack of venues selling their beer for one,but probably people dont associate the beer with Harveys, the amount of times someone will say to me how they went through Lewes and may even have been to the Harveys shop, but completely missed the brewery was there, is quite remarkable.

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  9. There is a bit of a thing going on where at times crafties seem to queue up to express their love for an otherwise off message beer. A while back I can remember a few expressing their love of Bud, and Matt Curtis may have been among them. Still, Harvey's Best is a definite improvement, though last time I had it it was overshadowed by Armada. Now that was gorgeous. And come to think of it when I made trips to Lewes it would be in July so I could drink the Tom Paine.

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  10. I'd also imagine that if your experience of brewery visits is talking to a couple of guys in a unit on an industrial estate, the first time you go somewhere like Harvey's is pretty mindblowing.
    AP

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  11. A swift half of 6X at opening time while waiting to change buses might just have been the best beer I've had this year.

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  12. I grew up with Harvey's. When I was a child in the 80s they were my Mum's favourite brewery. Their beers were among the first I drank as a teenager.

    I've tried 25 different Harvey's cask beers, including rare ones like Elizabethan and PofD, plus a few bottles and even a can of their bitter while riding the observation tower in Brighton.

    And yet, in all honesty, I consider them an entirely unremarkable brewery. No better or worse than others of their ilk. I fail to see what all the fuss is about, if indeed there is even a fuss-about being fussed about.

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