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Classic Beer of the Month November 2015: Harvey's Sussex Best Bitter

Harvey's Sussex Best Bitter, 4%

There are few beers that engender such loyalty as Harvey's Sussex Best Bitter.

Harvey's Sussex Best BitterI've lost count of the number of people who have told me that it's their favourite beer, one they will always opt for given the opportunity.

It's not one of those beers that jumps out of the glass, slaps you about the face and leaves you shellshocked. Not at all. This is a beer that is very pleasing at the first sip and then just gets better and better as you sink pint after pint.

The beer has its origins back in the 1950s, in fact it is 60 years old this year. It was created by Harvey's head brewer Anthony Jenner, father of Miles who runs the Lewes brewhouse today.

It arrived at a time when drinking habits were changing. Mild – all the rage for most of the twentieth century – was showing signs of gradual decline, and paler, hoppier beers were gaining favour.

The introduction of what was known at the time simply as Harvey's Best Bitter was opportune. Within ten years, mild had lost its position of pre-eminence; within twenty years, the table had been turned completely. It was bitter that ruled the roost and mild had faded away.

National Awards

The new beer was surely responsible for much of this turnaround locally, but it also began garnering attention outside its Sussex homeland, collecting the first of numerous national awards in 1968.

In 1970, the word Sussex was added to the name of the beer and most of the beer is still sold in that county – which is all the more reason why drinkers further afield home in on it whenever it pops up elsewhere.

To simply describe the beer, you would say it was a sound, traditional British bitter – 4% alcohol, rich amber-copper colour, a good balance of English malt and hops. That really doesn't do it justice, though.

The beer is built on a base of Maris Otter pale malt, topped up by some crystal malt. The hop grist features four varieties, all in equal quantities: Fuggle, Golding, Bramling Cross and Progress.

Combined with Sussex spring water and subjected to the magical influence of the Harvey's yeast, these traditional ingredients conjure up a beer that offers malt in the welcoming aroma, alongside light floral notes.

The taste begins bittersweet, with a touch of caramel, but there's a firm English-hop backbone, adding more floral character and a dab of orange, as well as a smooth, grounding bitterness. Leafy hops linger in the drying, bitter finish.

Miles Jenner and his team produce several other outstanding beers, but this is clearly the lifeblood of the company, accounting for over 90% of the output (the beer is also available in bottled format under the name of Harvey's Blue Label).

And, not surprisingly, the awards have kept coming, most notably the title of CAMRA's Champion Best Bitter for two years running in 2005–6.

For what is still primarily a local beer, Harvey's Sussex has become a national treasure.

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