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.