Tag Archives: history

Harveys’ Old Ale and the end of the summer

Rev Godfrey Broster of Rectory Ales (left), Edmund Jenner and Robin Thorpe of Harveys (behind the bar)

In my last post I mentioned it was the autumn equinox a few days ago. This is the moment when day and night are the same length. And now the nights are, officially, getting longer. We’ve had a fairly poor summer here in southern England. May and June were lovely, but since then it’s been unsettled, frequently cool. After my two and half summers in Rome, where summer generally runs from April to October, I feel somewhat cheated.

That said, there is one bright side to the nights drawing in and the prospect of dark and damp from here through to March: Harveys’1 Old Ale.

I love Old Ale. It’s quite possibly my favourite of Harveys’ 20-odd beers (I think I’ve tried them all now; nearly at least). It’s dark and sweet and warming. If a beer can be cosy and reassuring, it’s Harveys’ Old Ale. It’s a beer that’s perfect to drink in a warm pub, preferably with an open fire, on a long winter evening. Robin Thorpe of Harveys called it the “classic winter beer”, and added that as September has already turned so cool and wet it’s fine to be drinking it already. Which suits me.

We got to try the first of this year’s Old Ale at a Harveys tasting last night, hosted by Robin and Edmund Jenner. The evening was billed as a Seasonal Beer Tasting, and was a highly informative run-through of the beers – and how and why they fit with certain seasons.

A trend of the past 30 or 40 years may have seen a diminishment of seasonal beers, with many ill-informed drinkers just quaffing the same generic industrial brews all year round, but Harveys is among the heritage breweries that maintains the tradition of varying production through the year.

The evening started, however, with Wild Hop, a 3.7% ABV light ale that’s a perfect light summer drink. I mentioned Wild Hop back after my tour of the brewery in June 2014, but Edmund told us more about the gestation of this beer, which they first produced in 2004 “in response to what we now call blonde ale.”

It’s made with Fuggles and Goldings hops in the boil, then dry-hopped with English grown Cascade, which are more modest in flavour and aroma than their New World counterparts. It also contains Sussex variety hops – which are a recent domestication of a wild variety, first discovered on the Sussex-Kent border. Ed explained how most wild hops simply don’t have the qualities required for brewing, but this hybrid proved perfect.

Fran, in her usual unique way, said the Wild Hop reminded her of Sindy dolls or Tiny Tears. Something in the aroma reminded her of nuzzled dollies as a child. I can’t say I could relate; maybe Action Man smelled very different.

Harveys beer tasting

Although Harveys vary their production during the year, their main year-round brew is their Best Bitter. It accounts for about 90% of their production now. Bitter and Best Bitter are quintessential English beers, and it would be easy to imagine we’ve been drinking them here for centuries. But Ed gave us more history. Harveys’ Best wasn’t produced in 1945 (instead they brewed 75% mild, 25% pale), only accounted for 7% of their production in 1955 and 45% in 1965. Today’s Best Bitter, in fact, only “re-evolved” after the Second World War.

Two wars seriously threatened Britain’s grain supplies, with convoys from North America harried by U-boats. When grain did get here, the priority was food, not booze. So barley wasn’t used in brewing so much and what was produced had lower gravity, and alcohol by volume. Brewers were required to keep gravity low, and indeed, the wars even resulted in the introduction of licensing hours to keep the war effort population more sensible in their booze consumption. Trends and tastes in beer change – mild is way out of fashion now – but war and law have also played a significant role too.

At the end of the evening we had a blend2 of Best and the Old Ale, and it was a cracker. I may be asking for this again, see if I can help encourage some pubs to start this practice again. Blending was the norm in British beer drinking until fairly recently.

As much as I love the Old Ale, the most pertinent beer we tasted last night was the South Downs Harvest. Like the wheat sheaf in my previous post, this is a celebration of the harvest, of autumn. It’s a light, biscuity golden ale – which is made with green hops, just harvested. As Ed said, it contains “something of this year’s summer.”

Among the other beers we tasted was Armada Ale, which was first brewed in 1988 to commemorate 400 years since the Spanish Armada. Harveys are great at such commemorative brews. Among their recent ones was the fascinating Priory Ale, brewed last year for the 750th anniversary of the Battle of Lewes. I talked about this herby, historical brew here.

Last night Robin raised their Celebration Cocktail – with Priory Ale – and said it was to celebrate numerous things happening in 2015: 800 years since the Magna Carta, the birth of Anne of Cleves (who had a house in Lewes, which you can still visit, and was born 22 September 1515), 75 years since the Battle of Britain, 50 years since the development of the famed Maris Otter malt and even Harveys’ own 225th birthday.

So much history, mediated through the medium of beer. Harveys’ production of such beers encapsulate various elements of local and English history. Furthermore, as Ed reiterated, their beers get their character from their yeast, the same strain since 1957, and the water, taken from a borehole into the chalk aquifer. It’s rainwater filtered through chalk and as such has a unique mineral character. Have a pint of Harveys and that liquid is our history, our heritage and our environment. It’s a wonderful thing. With all this on offer, how anyone can drink characterless industrial beers I don’t know.

1. They’re called “Harvey’s”, though it’s more generally rendered as “Harveys” these days. Luckily, as a double possessive apostrophe is a bit painful: Harvey’s’.
2. I’ve heard this before, but it bears repeating. Blending beers is also out of fashion, but not at The Jolly Tanners in Staplefield, West Sussex, where Ed says they call the practice “tosspotting”. For those who don’t know this minor English word, a tosspot is an idiot or a drunkard. With “to toss” British slang for “to masturbate”. Apparently tosspot has its origins in the 1560s.


Filed under Ale, beer, Breweries

Neolithic bread

Back in 1999, an archaeological dig in Yarnton, Oxfordshire, “unearthed two 5,000-year-old pieces of bread – the earliest fragments of bread to be recovered in the British Isles”.

Despite my enthusiasm for history, British food history and bread in general, I’d not heard about this before, so thanks to Jeremy Cherfas and his Newsletter from Eat This Podcast.

It’s a wonderful story. Not only is it amazing to have such fragments, which survived as they were charred and have been carbon dated as from “between 3,620 and 3,350 BC”, but also, in this era of blanket demonisation of bread, it’s a salient reminder of how long humanity has had an important relationship with grain-based foods. Even here in Britain, which was, a long way from the civilisations of the Middle East, central Asia, China etc.

At the time of the announcement, they had identified one of the grains as barley. I wonder if they managed to identify any more of the ingredients and if anyone had a go at re-creating the ancient loaf? It sounds like an interesting challenge, but one would need not only true ancient grain varieties, but also a quern-stones to mill them. That’s not something that’s part of my kitchen kit at this point.

There’s a little more on this 1999 discovery here and here, but I can’t find anything subsequent.



Leave a comment

Filed under Baking, Misc

From baths to quarry to tourist attraction

Went to the Baths of Caracalla the other day. First impression was that it was comparable with London’s dear old Battersea Powerstation: red brick, massively imposing,  not looking its best. It’s certainly a site that dwarfs much of the other extant (or exposed) remains in Rome from the Empire era.

I’m very ignorant about ancient Roman history, but what particularly interests me – and what I plan to read about once I’ve finished the fascinating Rome: Whispering City by Richard Bosworth – is what happened during the period of transition between the last Roman emperors and the new rule of the “barbarians”. I’m using pesky inverted commas because I’m reluctant to say German chieftains or suchlike, as no one seems to know the true origins of Oadacer, the chap who deposed Romulus Augustulus in 476AD. He was, however, known to have been a general in the Roman army, so there’s some continuity already – he wasn’t completely foreign, alien to Roman culture.

Wandering around the shell of the baths, I wondered what happened in and after 476AD. Did the staff (including slaves)  simply stop coming to work? Did punters arrive to find the doors locked and have to forgo their daily bathe? Or did life continue in much the same manner for decades, until the Gothic Wars in the 6th century when the technical systems were apparently knackered by Ostrogoths, who joined the list of armies who have invaded and romped around in Rome over the centuries.

The slow change of society is hard to grasp, and visiting such a place you only get a bare backbone of its history: built 212-216AD; fell into disrepair after the fall of the Western Empire; was used as a quarry during the middle ages; was pillaged for its statuary etc from the Renaissance onwards (most famously the Farnese Hercules); was deployed as a theatre by Mussolini. Very little remains of the details and decoration, bar some sections of frieze and restored mosaic. It takes an agile mind to extrapolate from this:

To this:

That’s not a great illustration, but it has the virtue of being colourful – these places would have been highly decorated.

This is a great image, by CR Cockerell, but it’s kinda drab:

Anyway, to get back to my original musings – this is exactly the kind of thing I’d love to see in a CGI time-lapse or somesuch. That’s not available though, so I’ll have to bolster my imagination the old-fashioned way: via books. Currently agonising over which book on the fall of Rome to buy. There are inevitably a lot, and books are effing pricey here in Rome, especially if you’re British, with our poor exchange rate.

When I was very young, my mum used to go shopping down the high street with a basket, visiting the green grocer, the butcher, the baker, and, er, Woolies, most likely. These days almost all grocery shopping occurs in supermarkets, and those independent high street shops are long gone, replaced by chains of mobile phone shops or hot milk drink franchises. That’s just in 30 or so years.

So the fabric of cities does change tangibly – albeit slowly – and even after mere decades you can look back and play a time-lapse in your mind. Presumably something similar happened at the Baths. Maintenance wouldn’t have been so assiduous, service would have worsened, prices would have risen… In fact, it sounds somewhat akin to what’s happening with services and facilities in a country like UK or Italy during this Depression (or is it just a Recession? Or “economic downturn?”).

Life expectancy in 4th century Rome would have been what, around 40 (if you survived childhood)? So individuals would have been unlikely to have been able to note the kind of changes I’ve seen in the high street of my home town. And if no one was alive to remember what things were like 50 or 60 years ago, presumably no one would really have mourned the gradual diminishment of services and eventual functional death of something like the Baths of Caracalla, other than perhaps an intellect elite who read history.


Filed under Main thread, Rome