The first time I ever tried King & Barnes Bitter I thought that it was one of the finest beers I had ever tasted. Sadly, I rarely bother drinking it, these days, as it has become just another run of the mill, ordinary bitter which, quite frankly, I find very disappointing. This is a great shame, especially when I think back to the lengths I had to go to in order to track down a pint of King & Barnes during the late 1970's.
I was living in South West London at the time, and being a country boy at heart, I often had a longing to escape from the confines of the big city. To travel out into the fresh air and open spaces of the surrounding countryside was what I desired. I achieved this aspiration by purchasing a second hand racing bike. It cost me the princely sum of £29. The bike fulfilled another aspiration, that of becoming fitter, and what better way than to cycle out into the Surrey countryside, in order to visit an unspoilt country pub.
Virtually every Sunday, from early Spring through to late Autumn, weather permitting, I would jump on my bike and head due south. Invariably I would be aiming for a country pub, carefully picked from the Good Beer Guide, where I could enjoy a Sunday lunchtime drink before cycling home. As I became fitter, the length of my cycle journeys increased as well. I had always wanted to try King & Barnes, as I knew that their beers had an excellent reputation. A glance through my beer guide showed me that there was a King & Barnes house in Reigate a town which, although a fair distance, was just about within my reach.
One particular Sunday, with the promise of fine weather, I decided to go for broke and cycle to Reigate. I chose my route with care trying, as I always did, to avoid main roads wherever possible. However, for the first part of my journey, busy main thoroughfares were unavoidable. Before too long though, I was riding through the Surrey "Stock-Broker Belt" and into the open countryside.
Those who are familiar with the geography of this part of the country will know that the North Downs form a natural barrier to the south of the capital; a barrier which has to be traversed. Travelling due south there is a relatively shallow, but rather long climb up before one reaches a steeply sloping escarpment. This then drops away, quite dramatically, to some relatively flat ground in between the next ridge of hills. What this means for the cyclist, is a long, but reasonably gentle ride up on the outward journey, culminating in a short, but exhilarating ride down. Whilst on the return journey there is a steep, but short climb up, followed by a nice long, free-wheel all the way home - just the thing after a long cycle ride out!
I was aiming for a pub called the Nutley Hall; an unspoilt 19th Century town boozer, hidden away in the backstreets of Reigate. I managed to find it without too much trouble and, after chaining my bike to some nearby railings, I stepped inside eager to quench my thirst after my long ride. I ordered a pint of bitter and raised it to my lips with eager anticipation. I was not to be disappointed.
The beer was very pale in colour, not quite the pale-straw colour of Boddingtons or Theakstons, but not far from it. It possessed a wonderful hop aroma, which led into a superb, flowery hoppiness. This set off the maltiness of the beer in a way that can only be described as perfect; so perfect in fact that, as I mentioned at the beginning of this article, it ranked as one of the best beers I had ever tasted. The beer was almost too good to tip straight down my throat and, thirsty as I was, I found myself savouring every last drop of it. I still managed to put away a further two pints of it, before time was called, after which I mounted my bike and reluctantly headed for home, vowing to return.
I made at least two further visits to Nutley Hall, taking a friend with me on one of those occasions. Each time the beer was superb. I even tried the King & Barnes Mild by way of a change. However, having got this far, I decided to cast my net even further afield. The reasons for this decision were twofold, and included a desire to prove to myself that I could cycle even further for a lunchtime drink. My main reason though was having enjoyed King & Barnes Fine Horsham Ales in an unspoilt town boozer, I wanted to enjoy them in an unspoilt country inn.
The Plough at Blackbrook fitted the bill, and on a scorching July day, after a long ride and a few wrong turns, I arrived hot and sticky at the Plough. I found the ale here to be every bit as good as that at Nutley Hall, but this time I had the added bonus of the pleasant rural surroundings.
So far as I recall, this was to be my one and only visit to Blackbrook, for not long afterwards I moved to Maidstone, where I had bought my first house. There were no King & Barnes pubs in the Maidstone area, or indeed Kent as a whole, and it was to be some time before I had the chance to sample the company's products again.
My chance came in the summer of 1980, on a visit organised by the Maidstone & Mid-Kent branch of CAMRA, to the brewery itself. I had recently been co-opted onto the branch committee and had been given the job of organising the trip. I booked the coach, and on the appointed day our party journeyed to Horsham. Our trip round the brewery was scheduled for 1pm, which meant that we had a couple of hours to sample King & Barnes in their home town. Despite visiting a number of King & Barnes pubs, I must confess to a feeling of disappointment over the beer I sampled that day. It seemed somewhat lacking in character, certainly compared to the beer I had enjoyed a couple of years previously. It was also considerably darker in colour.
The reasons for the changes were not immediately apparent to me but, with the benefit of hindsight, I now know that they were directly related to the opening of a brand new brew-house in 1980. The latter was built alongside the original, 120 year old one, and had three times its capacity. The idea was that the old brew-house would produce the smaller volume beers, such as Sussex Mild and Old Ale, whilst the new one would brew Sussex Bitter, plus the recently launched Draught Festive - a premium strength bitter derived from the bottled beer of the same name. It was around this time that the company adopted both a different style for its beers, and a new corporate identity for its pubs. Instead of being known as King & Barnes Horsham Ales, they set their sights further afield, adopting the name King & Barnes Sussex Ales. Similarly, the bitter, which had formerly been known as P.A., was renamed Sussex Bitter.
The tour was interesting enough, although having already drank a skin-full of ale beforehand; my memory of it is rather vague. Not long afterwards, I remember reading in "What's Brewing", a letter penned by, amongst others, Frank Baillie. The letter was a complaint concerning the deterioration of King & Barnes's Bitter, with the comment that it lacked the delightful flowery hop aroma it once had. The writers also believed that the beer had become bland and lacking in character. Although I had a considerable amount of respect for Frank Baillie, I considered this judgement to be somewhat harsh. Again with the benefit of hindsight, I now know that these opinions were correct. King & Barnes Bitter had gone from being one of the finest beers in the country, to being a very plain and very ordinary bitter.
In 1984 I moved to Tonbridge, a move which gave me more of a chance to renew my acquaintance with King & Barnes. By this time their beers were quite widely available in the West Kent area, and the company had also just acquired its first tied house in Kent, the Hop Bine at Petteridge. I drank King & Barnes wherever I could, but must admit the Sussex Bitter invariably left me disappointed. Things eventually got to the stage that I started to avoid Sussex Bitter. When measured against the other “Sussex Bitter” i.e.. the better known, and more widely distributed beer from Harvey's of Lewes, there was just no comparison and, given the choice, I would always plump for the latter.
In 1987, as secretary of the Tonbridge & Tunbridge Wells Branch of CAMRA, I organised another visit to the brewery. This time we travelled by train, and also had the tour mid-morning, i.e.. prior to embarking on a crawl of the pubs of Horsham. Sampling the beers in the brewery hospitality room, and then being led on the conducted tour round the plant, finally brought home to me just how much the bitter had deteriorated in character. I firmly believe that the brewery altered the recipe of this beer some time between 1978 and 1980. Whether this was a result of the opening of the new brew-house, or whether it was just coincidental, I don't know. What I do know is that I no longer go out of my way to drink Sussex Bitter any more.
As I said at the beginning of this article this is a great shame, but at least King & Barnes still have some fine beers in their portfolio. Draught Festive is a very good drink indeed, whilst their seasonal Old Ale is rightly described by CAMRA's Good Beer Guide as a classic. I have yet to try all of the new range of seasonal beers, introduced by the company, but feel that I will not be disappointed when I do. Certainly, those I have sampled to date have all been good. Now if only King and Barnes would revert to brewing Sussex Bitter like it used to be then everything would be just fine!
My desire for the old P.A. recipe to be revived was never fulfilled, because in September 1999 Shepherd Neame of Faversham made a surprise bid for King & Barnes. This was countered in April 2000, by a rival bid from Dorset brewers, Hall & Woodhouse. The bid was accepted by the shareholders, and within weeks brewing had ceased. The brewery buildings were sold off and demolished for housing, and the pubs are now managed by Hall and Woodhouse, who also acquired the rights to the King & Barnes brand names
The exact reasons behind the takeover are not clear, but the value of the brewery site, right in the centre of Horsham, may have been enough to persuade the majority of the shareholders to cash in their chips. Family member, Bill King wanted to continue brewing, but his 30% share was not enough to stop the others from selling up.
In May 2001 Bill King formed a small brewery in Horsham - WJ King & Co. Around the same time, King & Barnes ex-head brewer Andy Hepworth also started his own brewery in the town - Hepworth & Co. The company specialises in contract brewing and also bottles for other brewers, but still produces some cask beer for sale locally. A couple of years later, Hepworth’s and King’s were joined by Welton’s; a company which produces a wide variety of different cask ales.
Fourteen years later, and Hall & Woodhouse are still churning out beers badged as King & Barnes. If anything, the Sussex is even worse than it was in the latter days of brewing in Horsham, and anyway, how can you have a Sussex Bitter which is brewed in Dorset?