Harvey’s Brewery in Lewes, Sussex, is as old school as they come. Sometimes, no matter how much you think you know about brewing, or how forward-looking you are in terms of what’s new in beer, you need to revisit a place like this to ground you and remind you what it’s all about.
We were in Lewes for a strategy day. Along with publisher Daniel Neilson and editor Adrian Tierney Jones, I’m now one third of Original Gravity magazine, the latest edition of which is just out. We got together a couple of weeks ago for a day or so to work out the future direction of the mag (clue: it’s really exciting). After a few beers the night before, the conversation loosened, and we got onto a bit of a riff I could clumsily title ‘Beers some people take for granted and others ignore completely because they’ve been here forever but if they were launched tomorrow by a hip new brewery you would totally lose your shit over how good they are.’
We came up with a pretty impressive list. Near the top was Harvey’s Best Bitter. I think we were excited because we knew that after our morning’s session, we had a tour of the brewery planned.
Harvey’s is an unusual brewery in that it’s smack in the middle of the town of Lewes, dominating the skyline. And it’s uncommonly beautiful to look at. It’s a Victorian ‘tower brewery’, where all the ingredients are hoisted up to the top floor, and then steadily make their way down through the various brewing vessels with the assistance of gravity. There are other Victorian tower breweries in town centres, but Wadworth in Devizes is the only other one that springs immediately to mind as such a compelling tourist attraction. Harvey’s has the edge on it: there’s a waiting list of two months here for brewery tours.
Miles Jenner – the third generation in a family of brewers – has been head brewer at Harvey’s since 1986, and joint Managing Director since 2000. His office, with its carefully painted door, is just opposite the main brewing copper. From the outside, with its coloured glass and gabled window, it looks like a small chapel in a Tudor Manor House.
The religious comparison doesn’t stop there.
“People often refer to the brewery as Lewes cathedral,” says Miles when we meet him in the brewery yard. “I changed the sign really to see if anyone would notice.”
Harvey’s was founded in 1790, and has been on this site since 1838. It’s been rebuilt and added to ever since, and there’s currently a lot of scaffolding and ladders around the place. It’s all done with an incredible attention to detail in preserving the feel of the original. It’s a lovely story, but the building is now Grade II listed. From an architectural point of view, so it should be. But for a live brewery, that occasionally needs to install new brewing or fermentation vessels – which are usually so big as to require a roof to be taken off or a wall dismantled to get them in – it’s a curse as well as a blessing.
That helps explain why even a lot of the new stuff at Harvey’s is quite old. Mash Tun number one looks like it belongs on the Nautilus. No matter what the agenda of the host, when you get to this room any group of visitors ignores everything else and stops to take photographs, trying to capture it’s deep sheen and industrial romance.
Eventually Miles drags us away and takes us through to the hop store. Harveys only ever uses whole leaf hops rather than pellets. It’s just proper. The hops are kept refrigerated by the hop merchants to preserve their freshness, and called into the brewery about a week before they’re needed. The brewery’s labelling system displays the name of the grower as well as the hop variety – Harvey’s isn’t far from the hop gardens of Kent and Sussex, and Miles likes to have close relationships with his growers.
Harvey’s mainly uses English hop varieties such as Fuggles and Goldings. In the age of the citrusy, tropical fruit delights of new world hops, these more conservative varieties often receive short shrift, being described as dull and twiggy. The Fuggles here are fresh and spicy, peppery with a hint of lemon meringue. If you can only make dull, twiggy beers with these hops, you’re either not buying from the right place, keeping them badly, or you’re not a very good brewer.
Those hops often end up in the old Harvey’s copper, which isn’t as old as it seems, and hasn’t been here for as long as you might think. When Miles opens the hatch towards the end of the boil, we brave scalding steam to see the drama inside and try to win an inhalation of that deep, spicy aroma.
Harvey’s still has open fermentation vessels, which means you can actually see the beer being made in the truest sense of the word. Different fermenters hold beer at different stages in its fermentation period. The yeasty head goes from brilliant white foam in the first to beige sludge in the older second, the scummy sides suggestive of the orgy of consumption and reproduction the yeast has enjoyed over the last couple of days.
All of this plays its part in making Harvey’s beers somehow better than others in their style. There’s just something more here, a slight wildness in the yeast – undetectable in the Best Bitter, but more pronounced in the Imperial Stout once its been aged for a few months. The quality of the hops. The experience of a head brewer who’s been in the job for over thirty years. the reverence this building inspires.
“There’s always speculation that we’re going to sell up and move, especially when there’s all this scaffolding around,” says Miles. “I mean we could. We could sell this place for an absolute fortune for redevelopment, and move to an industrial park outside town. But that would destroy everything that Harvey’s is about. So what would be the point?”