Where the Wild Things Are — The Joy of Harvey’s Sussex Best
In Lewes they refer to the 19th-century tower that forms the tallest part of Harvey’s Brewery as The Cathedral. And if you stand on the bridge spanning the River Ouse in the centre of this Sussex town—nestled among the verdant South Downs—you might be lucky enough to catch the scent of sweet barley malt, as brewers mash in a brew of what will more-than-likely be a fresh batch of Harvey’s Sussex Best.
While Harvey’s Brewery, established here in Lewes in 1790, is not actually a house of worship, drinking a pint of its Best can be near to a religious experience. When served in peak condition, topped with a round of foam that imitates the gentle roll of the South Downs themselves, there are few other things that offer similar comfort.
Best is a delicious beer that commands repeated consumption. One that is complex without ever being complicated. This is a beer than can be pondered for hours, or even days. Or for a careless second, quickly making way for another sip. For these reasons it is a beer cherished by many.
“[Harvey’s Best] represents the quintessence of the beauty of traditional English beers,” Yvan de Baets, co-founder of lauded Belgian brewery Brasserie de la Senne tells me in a recent email. “It imparts a perfect balance between malt and delicate hops, a subtle fruitiness, a great body and a fantastic, unique yeast character, due to the magic of open fermentation and the fact that they haven't propagated [yeast] in decades.”
This is not the first time Yvan has spoken to me about his love for this beer. In an earlier interview from September 2017, I asked what inspired him to make his own such iconic beers like Zinnebir and Taras Boulba. He answered immediately, and with great enthusiasm, that it was Harvey’s Best. Evidently, enjoying a pint or two is a priority on his visits to the UK.
Yvan also referred to a “tamed wildness” within the beer. On its surface, Harvey’s Best is relentlessly simple. It offers you gentle aromas of cracked biscuits and orange pith. There’s a nudge of sweetness from golden malt that becomes more pronounced when the beer’s condition from cask is at its peak. Then there’s a snap of Fuggle and Goldings hops; a dusting of white pepper, nettle tea and perhaps the merest hint of lemon zest in a dry, prickly finish. All of which only serves to prime you for another taste.
And yet, among all of this simple, balanced flavour, there is something else. Something feral and without control. Something that can hold your complete attention or pass without a second thought. It’s not quite clean, yet not quite funky. It’s a trait found in few other beers. Orval might be one of them. But this awkwardness of flavour isn’t caused by a Brettanomyces strain of yeast, as it is in the Belgian Trappist beer. It is something else entirely, a mysteriousness that somehow propels those who drink this beer regularly into a state of reverie.
“It is pure romance,” Harvey’s head brewer Miles Jenner tells me of his relationship with brewing this beer. “Drawing water from a well, brewing with local ingredients and producing a beer we drink by preference. We are a very happy band.”
The beer was first brewed in 1955, following a period of post-war rationing that had extended into the 1950’s. The intention was to brew a beer that appealed to local palates at the time—in this instance a well-hopped bitter, balanced with some residual sweetness. Following its introduction Harvey’s would survive an intense period of industry consolidation over the next couple of decades. By the late 1960’s Sussex Best was beginning to gain serious recognition, picking up major awards in the process.
“We were seen in a David and Goliath context. Local drinkers would refer to ‘little, old Harvey’s holding its own,’” Miles says. “To some extent, it was the stuff that legends are made of.”
Best totaled just 7% of Harvey’s production in its first year (Harvey’s Mild, by comparison, took up 74% of the brewing schedule in 1955). By 1985 these roles had reversed, Best making up 85% of that years output, and Mild reduced to just 8%. Somewhat fittingly, it celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2005 by receiving the prestigious Champion Beer of Britain award from the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA).
Miles, who replaced his father, Anthony, as head brewer at Harvey’s in 1986, sees the advent of CAMRA in 1971 as a “springboard” for the brewery. The increasing popularity of real ale allowed Harvey’s to gradually expand while also being able to maintain consistency. He is somewhat reticent, however, about the element of wildness that lurks unseen in every glass, preferring to focus instead on its more immediate merits.
“It appeals to many simply because it is balanced, full-bodied and moreish,” he says.
It is obvious Miles takes immense joy from being a steward for this beer. He is also honest in his admission that maintaining its consistency is never easy. To aid with this Harvey’s contracts locally grown hops and barley four years in advance, ensuring continuity within its supply chain. In March 2017 he led me on a guided tour of the brewery. Clad in a white lab coat and metal-rimmed spectacles, there is a tempered freneticism to his words and movements.
While the lower levels of the brewery resemble many a typical production facility—with packaging lines clunking and clinking heavily under the weight of casks and bottles—the upper floors take you back in time several decades. Various pumps whir as two mash tuns operate concurrently, lending an unnatural warmth to a room of dark brown wooden enclaves juxtaposed by white brick and worn copper vessels. Hop-filled sacks, standing taller than you or I lay idly, awaiting their moment to be emptied into one of two boiling kettles in the room next door. Miles’ office, denoted by a sign that reads “Head Brewer” is opposite. It’s not a long commute for him either, he has the privilege of living next door to the brewery.
Walking past the kettle and into the adjacent room you are met with several stainless steel open fermentation vessels on either side of a thin corridor. It is here that the wildness inherent within Harvey’s beers has nowhere to hide. So potent is the aroma produced by its proprietary strain of yeast—almost strawberry-like—it soaks into every crevice and pore. Waves of off-white foam—known as krausen, produced by the yeast during fermentation—cap several of the tanks. Others lie vacant, with those recently emptied marked by what looks like an immovable dark brown crust around the edge of the vessel. To this day, standing in that room is one of the most intense sensory experiences I can remember.
At the end of the tour, those lucky enough to be there (the brewery is not currently accepting applications for tours at present) are crammed into a tiny room where Best is served from cask via gravity alone; Miles’ preferred method of dispense. There is time for a quick, thirst-sating taste here, before being whisked over the road to the brewery’s tap room of sorts, The John Harvey Tavern, for more still.
Should I have a similar luxury to Miles in being a resident of Lewes, I would likely visit this pub, or one of Harvey’s three other pubs in town, The Dorset, The Swan and The Rights of Man, with alarming regularity. To drink Best so close to the brewery, and perhaps most importantly, in Sussex itself, is life-affirming.
Thankfully, fresh Sussex Best is within easy reach of thirsty Londoners like me. Many head to one of its three London pubs, such as The Royal Oak in Borough, for their fix. Those in the know, however, will more than likely head to Covent Garden instead. For it is The Harp, a Fuller’s Pub with a reputation for serving some of the best pints of cask ale in the capital, that offers (for me, at least) the finest pint of Best outside Lewes. Much of this is down to the expert management of its cellar by deputy manager, Karl Seville.
“Harvey’s [Best] has permanently been on at The Harp ever since I started some 10 years ago,” Karl tells me. “It followed former landlady Bridget Walsh from her previous pub, The Rose and Crown in Clapham. She had an excellent relationship with Harvey’s Brewery and the beer has been a Harp staple ever since.”
The Harp receives a delivery from Harvey’s once a week to guarantee freshness. The beer is served from 18 gallon kilderkins, with one ready to serve at any time, sometimes two on particularly busy weekends. There is something about having a pint of Sussex Best in The Harp that compares so directly to enjoying one in Lewes itself. Perhaps, remarks Karl, it is the proximity of the pub to Charing Cross station, the commuter gateway to Sussex and the Southeast.
“We find many commuters having a ‘pint of their local’ before they go home,” he says. “This has given us a great reputation, some say the best in London, if not better than Harvey’s in Lewes!”
Although The Harp can get busy due to its location, if you time it right—just after lunch on a Tuesday afternoon for example—bar the odd tourist or fellow work-dodgers, you can have the pub largely to yourself. This gives you the perfect opportunity to sidle up to the soft ochre glow of the stained glass window at the front of the pub, and lose yourself in a pint or two of Best. Maybe this time you’ll snare that elusive wildness you can never seem to put your finger on. But it’ll probably elude you, yet again.
“This beer is to me liquid perfection,” Yvan de Baets says, as he signs off our recent email conversation. I smile, nodding to myself in agreement, drawing another sip of Best to my lips as I do so.