Monday 20 November 2023

Harvey's Old Ale at last

Seasoned readers of this blog will be well aware of my appreciation of dark ales, especially seasonal ones which make an appearance once a year, usually mid-autumn. These rich dark ales herald the approach of winter, as the days begin to shorten, and the nights start drawing in. They represent the continuation of a centuries old tradition of brewing strong, dark, nutritious, and fortifying ales, designed to see the populace at large through the long, dark, and cold winters.

The beers I am talking about are known as Old or Stock Ales, although the latter name is rarely used today. I don’t want to enter into too much detail, as this post is much more about tracking down and enjoying one of the first old ales of the 2023-24 season.

I am talking about here is XXXX Old Ale produced annually by Sussex brewers, Harvey’s of Lewes. Brewed to a strength of 4.3% abv. It is a rich, dark ale, containing a high percentage of crystal malt and black sugars. The beer is said to be reminiscent of the strong, mild ales, brewed at the beginning of the last century, and its arrival each year, is eagerly awaited by its devotees.

XXXX Old Ale is released to an eager public at the beginning of October, although a handful of pubs are known to start serving it, up to a week before that date. Harvey’s hold an annual “Dancing in the Old” celebration, which begins with a Harvest Thanksgiving, at the Church of St Thomas a Becket, which is close to the brewery, before adjourning to the brewery yard. There, at the stoke of midday, a number of local Morris Dancing sides, literally “Dance in the Old.” Members of the public are then invite to sample the first brew of the new season’s “Old Ale.”

The celebrations end promptly at 1.00 pm, when Harvey’s will announce that this year’s Old Ale is in prime condition and drinking exceptionally well. Despite all the years that I’ve known Harvey’s, I’ve never managed to attend this ceremony, and 2023's was no exception. I did, at least, have a valid excuse this year, as at the beginning of October, Mrs PBT’s and I were in Southampton, and about to board the Queen Victoria, at the start of our Mediterranean cruise. 

What normally follows is I attempt to track down some Old Ale, a task that is not as easy as you might think. Although Harvey’s make the beer available to the free trade, very few publicans seem to stock the beer, so if you really want to sample it, you have to head for a Harvey’s tied house. And that is where the problem lies, because Harvey’s don’t have any pubs in the three main towns of West Kent (Sevenoaks, Tonbridge & Tunbridge Wells). The nearest Harvey’s pubs to Bailey Towers, are the Bricklayers Arms at Chipstead, and the currently closed, Two Brewers at Hadlow. A couple of weeks ago, I noticed on the Real Ale Finder App, that Old Ale was available at the Nelson Arms, in Tonbridge, but it must have sold out pretty quick, as just two days later it was showing as no longer available. 

Plan B was to track it down during over the course of the weekend just gone, and I’m pleased to report that my quest succeeded.  My original intention had been to take the bus to Chipstead, a small village to the north-west of Sevenoaks, and grab a pint or two at the Bricklayers. That plan was scuppered by road works, in Sevenoaks High Street, as Mrs PBT’s and I discovered following a shopping trip to the town, the previous day. So, on Sunday morning I opted for a solution that had been staring me in the face, without me realising it.

A 15-minute train journey, from Tonbridge, saw me alighting at Frant station, just three stops down the line. Frant station lies in the village of Bells Yew Green, a small settlement a couple of miles from Frant itself. 

Slap bang in the middle of BYG is the Brecknock Arms, a small and attractive, late Victorian pub belonging to Harvey’s Brewery. It’s a pub that I’ve known for a long time, and through several changes of landlord, but it’s always been a reliable source of decent pint of Harvey’s, as well as a regular stockist of their seasonal beers.

I walked into the pub, and there on the bar, alongside hand pulls for Harvey’s Best Biter and Mild, was the unmistakable bright red pump clip for Harvey’s Old. So, a month and a half after this seasonal ale made its 2023 appearance, there I was ready to take my first and much anticipated mouthful of this sumptuous old ale, and I’m pleased to report that it didn’t disappoint. Smooth, dark, full-bodied, and very moreish, I enjoyed that pint so much, that I just had to have another (as you do!).

The Brecknock itself was doing a healthy lunchtime trade, serving up Sunday roast dinners to the hungry residents of Bells Yew Green and beyond. I was almost certainly the only customer not eating, but from what I could gather, the pub is popular with drinkers, at other times. It’s a couple of years since my last visit, but the Brecknock seems to have settled down nicely, under the care of its current owners, and long may it continue. Given these credentials, there's every chance I will be returning for another fix of Harvey’s excellent Old Ale.


Stafford Paul said...

"In prime condition and drinking exceptionally well" reflects my quite recent experiences of Harvey's Old Ale though I hadn't realised it wasn't brewed all year round.
I had it in the Royal Oak, Tabard Street during March 2020, not in 2021 for obvious reasons, in the Victoria, Eastbourne in April 2020 and in the John Harvey Tavern, Lewes two months ago.
Only Miles could brew a proper Old Ale that's of session strength allowing twice as much of it to be drunk than a winter beer like Old Tom.
Though the strength of some other Old Ales, I find that Miles's Prince of Denmark drinks more like an Imperial Stout than an Old Ale though sadly I've only once found the proper cask version.

retiredmartin said...

Love the Old, wish I saw more of it around.

Paul Bailey said...

Paul, Harvey's Old is available over quite a lengthy period, with some pubs selling it as early as the last week in September (before the official launch), right through until the end of March.

I suppose it depends on how much stock the pub has accrued, because in theory, they could sell it for an even longer period. I'm not sure when Harvey's stop brewing it, but it is certainly one of their most popular seasonal beers, and also one of the best. As you point out, Miles Jenner certainly knows what he is doing, when it comes to brewing.

I've only found Prince of Denmark in cask form once, and that was at the brewery, during a CAMRA branch visit in April, 2019. It's definitely more of an Imperial Stout than an Old Ale. I've got a bottle, in the cupboard downstairs, which I am saving for Christmas.

Looking forward to some cask Old Tom in Macclesfield, next month!

Paul Bailey said...

Martin, apart from Harvey's own tied houses, very few pubs seem to stock the Old Ale. I've written about this before, but I get the impression that with the exception of Guinness, many licensees are too timid to stock dark beers, such as old ales and porters.

Shortly before I left the Brecknock the other day, a customer was asking the barman, what type of beer the Old Ale was, as he'd never come across such a beer before. He wasn't a youngster, either (the customer, that is), but despite the barman's explanation, he still wasn't tempted to try a glass.

Stafford Paul said...

It's wonderful what can be learnt from blogs like this.
I thought Miles's Old Ale was all year round but you prompted me to check his website and it states "six months of the year".
It's seemed like all year to me as I don't get out much during the summer, too hot, and I've had it from 25th September - in the John Harvey Tavern on 24th I was told it'd be on the next day and arriving in Lewes at 10.11am I was the first customer - to 9th April, so early autumn to mid spring and more like all year than six months.

retiredmartin said...

The place to try all the Harvey's beers used to be the Garland in Redhill but I'm not sure it's as good as it was a decade ago.

Stafford Paul said...

I think the place to try all the Harvey's beers now is the Royal Oak, Tabard Street which is just about their nearest tied house to most of the country.

Volvo Cruiser said...

That pint in the first picture looks a bit rank. Wouldn't get me drinking that.

David Harrison said...

I haven't managed to try Harvey's Old for a couple of years now, despite Sussex Best Bitter being like a friendly rash all over this part of Kent. I'd better do as you did, and venture out to the Elephant's Head.Problem is, it isn't really on my way anywhere. We went to the Fountain at Cowden one winter, but alas the Old wasn't on.
I see more of Long Man's Old Man, which isn't a bad drop-I'd like to do a parallel tasting.

Stafford Paul said...

Now there's a coincidence.
Only yesterday with looking at an old diary I was reminded that I was in the Elephant's Head on 18th September 1977 and had a pint of Harvey's Bitter and a pint of Whitbread, the old Fremlins.

Paul Bailey said...

Martin, I called in at the Garland, on New Year's Eve 2021, after walking along the North Downs Way, from Betchworth to Box Hill.

Looking back at the blog, Harvey’s Dark Mild, Best Bitter, IPA and Old Ale, were all on tap, as I imagine they would be at the Royal Oak, at Tabard Street, Southwark.

As Stafford Paul points out, this excellent pub must be Harvey's nearest tied house to most of the country. I must pay it a long, overdue visit, next time I'm in London, and south of the Thames.

Paul Bailey said...

David, I was luckier than you in finding Old Ale on sale, during my last visit to the Fountain at Cowden. That was earlier this year - late February, to be precise.

The Elephant's Head, hasn't always proved quite so reliable when it comes to stocking Harvey's Old, and on my last visit, back in January 2022, was conspicuous by its absence. It was on sale, the previous month, so perhaps I was just unlucky.

I agree that Long Man's Old Man, makes a good substitute, but I haven't seen it on sale recently. I probably need to get over to Tunbridge Wells, to find some (Ragged Trousers, George, or Royal Oak?)

Paul Bailey said...

Paul, back in the late 70's and early 80's, I kept a diary, but eventually gave it up, due to the monotonous nature of many of the entries. I haven't seen those diaries in years, and I think they might have been lost during a house move.

The Elephant's Head would have been a free house, at the time of your visit, hence the availability of Whitbread Fremlins Bitter alongside the Harvey's. It belonged to the local estate - Bayham? but lost some of its character, when the estate sold the pub off.

I only visited it once, before the sell-off, and I remember, it had a lovely little, snug bar, alongside the public and saloon. That extension to the rear, is a modern addition, but it does provide a lot more drinking and especially dining space, at busy times.

I'm not sure when Harvey's acquired it, but it does fit in well with rest of their pub portfolio.

Stafford Paul said...

I can't claim to remember anything about the Elephant's Head, probably with being one of several thousand pubs I've used over the years.
Since yesterday I've realised though that the 1977 visit was from me staying briefly with my brother in East Finchley and it being on the way driving back from visiting our grandmother who had retired to Kent.
I've now found my October 1977 diary entry for the branch coach trip to Macclesfield. The first pub was the British Flag and I well remember the Robinsons Mild being acidic.

Bankonbet said...

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