Tours of Harvey’s are notoriously hard to come by, as normally there is a 3-4 year waiting list, so when West Kent CAMRA offered a tour of the brewery to the volunteers who helped at last year’s Spa Valley Railway Beer Festival, as a “thank-you”, I jumped at the chance.
We had good reason to be going to Harvey’s, as their Bonfire Boy – a seasonal, darkish ale, had been voted “beer of the festival.” at the previous year’s event. Ex-branch chairman, and joint festival organiser Craig, had managed to pull a few strings, and being in the licensed trade himself obviously helped when it came to arranging the tour.
This was definitely my fourth tour of Harvey’s Brewery and possibly my fifth, but whatever the tally, the previous one took place a quarter of a century ago. I’m pleased to report though that very little has changed and, what’s more, as on all previous trips, we had the incomparable Miles Jenner as our guide. Miles is the renowned and highly-respected head brewer at Harvey’s; a post he has held for many years, after following his father into the role.
So on a sunny, and fairly warm Saturday, just over a week ago, our party boarded the specially chartered, comfortable 52 seat coach in Tonbridge, and set off on the drive down to Lewes. There were other pickups along the way; most noticeably Tunbridge Wells and Crowborough.
We arrived in Lewes shortly before 11am, and after the driver had parked the coach at the rear of Harvey’s, we were met by Miles and led round to the brewery yard in front of the company’s impressive tower brewery. Miles began by recounting the history of brewery from its founding to the present day.
It is worth noting that Harvey's is the oldest independent brewery in Sussex. It is a family business, and the brewery has been in the guardianship of seven generations of John Harvey's descendants since 1790; with five family members from the seventh and eighth generations currently working there.
Miles’s narrative was interspersed with fascinating facts and often amusing anecdotes. For example, the Cliffe area of Lewes was a completely separate settlement from the main town, up on hill, and was rather looked down upon by the more affluent townsfolk who lived up there.
As well as being brewers and wine merchants, Harvey’s were also coal merchants; coal being just one of many commodities brought up to Lewes, by barge, along the River Ouse. It’s probably just as well I wasn’t taking notes, otherwise I’d be boring you all to death by now.
Suffice to say, the brewing business at the Bridge Wharf site has expanded steadily over the years and today, Harvey’s beers are well known throughout south-east England, and can be enjoyed in the company’s 45 pubs. They are also available in an extensive free-trade area covering the counties of Sussex, Kent and Surrey.
One other thing worth mentioning before we entered the brewery, is that Harvey’s have sunk a couple of artesian wells to tap into a source of brewing water or “liquor”, as brewers insist on calling it. Prior to that they relied on the town supply which, during the 19th Century, was sometimes contaminated.
After the introductory talk we followed Miles up into the brewery, an attractive rd-brick building, constructed on a tower principle to the design of the well-known brewery architect, William Bradford. To increase capacity a second, smaller tower, was added during the late 1980’s in front of the original. By using bricks especially made to match 19th Century ones, and cast iron window-frames which were copies of the originals, it is difficult to tell the old and the new apart.
We viewed the brewery’s two mash tuns, and Miles related a tale about the oldest of the pair. It was acquired, at auction, from the defunct Page & Overton Brewery at Croydon. Miles attended the sale as a young boy, with his father, who was bidding for the valuable copper vessel against a group of scrap metal merchants.
The bidding got quite heated, until Edward Charrington, of the well-known London brewing family who was in charge of the proceedings, intervened and told those present that Mr Jenner wanted the mash tun to brew beer in, at Lewes. The scrap-dealers relented, with one shouting out “Let him have it then”, and so Harvey’s acquired their mash tun.
Unlike modern breweries which have silos for bulk supplies of malt, Harvey’s still use malt supplied in sacks, and these have to be hoisted to the top of brewery before brewing can commence. We then moved on to the hop-store where whole hops, packed either in traditional “pockets” or more often now, in tightly compressed blocks, are used, as opposed to the hop pellets favoured by many breweries today.
Harvey’s source their hops locally, from growers in Sussex, Kent and Surrey, and contracts are placed up to four years in advance. This ensures adequate supplies of their preferred hops, which in the main are long established varieties such as Fuggles, Goldings, Progress and Bramling Cross.
We viewed the remainder of the brewing equipment, such as the two coppers plus hop back, before moving along to the fermentation room. Harvey’s at times seems like a museum, but it is very much a working one, and the tried and tested methods used, ensure beers of the highest quality.
Because brewing in this traditional manner is quite labour intensive, production costs are higher than at more modern, fully-automated breweries, and these have to be passed on to the consumer. Miles makes no apologies for this, and the continued popularity of Harvey’s beers is proof people are prepared to pay a higher price for a premium product.
Our final port of call, before the all important sampling cellar was the fermenting room, where the beer ferments away in a double row of open-top fermenters. Many of the vessels are quite old, but still fully functional. Harvey’s have used the same yeast for the past 60 years, and the strain originally came from the John Smiths Brewery in Tadcaster. You can watch and listen here as Miles tells the tale of how his father sourced and acquired the yeast.
And so to the sampling cellar, situated in the base of the brewery, next to the racking line. Here we were treated to a selection of different Harvey’s cask beers, all poured straight from the cask. These ranged from the 3.0% Dark Mild, to a specially-racked cask of Prince of Denmark. The latter is a strong, dark 7.5%, bottled beer, which only very occasionally appears in cask.
Miles had found a cask of the beer, with a BBE date of 2016. Given its high strength it was still perfectly drinkable, but most of us sensibly left this beer until last. I started off with the Dark Mild and then moved up through the gravities, enjoying a couple of glasses of the delectable XXXX Old Ale. I also sampled Harvey’s Wharf IPA for the first time. This 4.8% beer is normally only available in keg, so it was a real treat to sample it in cask form.
The company had very generously laid on a buffet for us, which helped soak up some of the beer. As well as sandwiches there were bowls of chips, samosas and chicken goujons; all of which was well received.
As stated previously, I put off sampling the cask Prince of Denmark until the end of the tour. It is certainly a complex beer, and one to be savoured, with aromas of leather, chocolate and liquorice which combine to create a lingering taste. Miles reckoned the beer had been brewed in 2015, so the stuff we were drinking was getting on to be four years old!
All the beer were served to us in what looked like plastic cups, but a closer inspection revealed they were made from plant starch. As such they were 100% compostable and 100% biodegradable. Most breweries take care to recycle items such as spent grain and spent hops, and Harvey’s are no exception, but they go a stage further with their beer bottles, as these can be returned to the brewery for washing and re-filling.
I think I’m right in saying they are currently the only UK brewery which uses returnable bottles. I had a couple of dozen, gathering dust in my shed, so I brought them along on the trip, and returned them at the Brewery Shop, prior to the tour.
The shop proved quite a hit with other participants on the tour and was a good place to finish with. One last thing, as Peter Falk would say, if you ever get the chance to tour Harvey’s, then no matter what JUST GO!!!