I’ve been around a lot of breweries in the last few years. To be honest, most of them look pretty much the same: stainless steel kettles, stainless conicals, bourbon barrels stacked in a corner.
The ones that stand out as being very different have one thing in common: they’ve been around a long while and retain lots of old equipment. Which for a historian like me makes them especially interesting. They’re the 3-D reality of what I’ve read in text books.
That’s why I’m so excited to get a look inside Harvey’s. A brewery that, in most respects, is brewing pretty much the same as they did before WW II with equipment that hasn’t really changed since then. Thirty or forty years ago this wouldn’t have been unusual, even in regional or national breweries.
One of the biggest transformations has been in fermentation vessels. I can count on the fingers of one hand new breweries I’ve visited that use anything other than conical fermenters. Even in these exceptional cases, usually it’s a fermenter or two for special beers, with the bulk of fermentation still taking place in conicals. How much impact has the universal use of conicals had on beer flavour? I suspect a lot.
I’m delighted – but not surprised – that Harvey’s have an old-fashioned fermentation room full of squares and rounds. The squares are indeed almost square and relatively shallow. Inside there are loose devices resembling radiators. Miles Jenner confirms what I suspected: they’re attemperators.
“I prefer loose attemperators because they’re easier to keep clean.” He explains.
I spot another device in a different fermenter, un upturned cone. I know for sure what that is. It’s a parachute, used for removing yeast from the top of fermenting wort. Isn’t this fun? Getting to see all these exotic piece of equipment.
There are fermenters in every phase. Some just cleaned and empty, others full of fiercely fermenting wort, others where the yeast is clearly about done. And everywhere the lovely fresh smell of fermentation. Plus the prickle of CO2 in the nostrils.
We head downstairs to the racking cellar, which is sensibly placed below the fermenters. The beer is run off through the simple expedient of an outlet in the bottom of the fermenter. It doesn’t have any great distance to travel. Not a lot is going on as no casks are being filled today.
On the same floor are the yeast stores. Simply a couple of cooled rooms filled with buckets of yeast. There’s an interesting story about Harvey’s yeast.
They used to get their yeast from a company in Burton that specialised in collecting yeast and selling it on to brewers around the country. When that firm closed in 1957, they had to find an alternative supply. After a bit of experimentation they settled on John Smiths.
Almost 60 years later, they’re still using it. But they haven’t cultured it. They’ve been repitching all that time, for what must be several thousand generations. It’s two strains that work symbiotically. Well, technically three, but we’ll get to that later.
Next Miles proudly shows us his new kegging system. For several years they had no kegging capacity, taking out the old system after the flood. It’s pretty small, the new equipment. Then again the vast majority of their beer is sold in cask form, a staggering 95%. I was going to say that I doubt anyone can match that. Then I remembered Donnington and Hook Norton. It wouldn’t surprise me if cask were a similar proportion there.
Our final stop is the bottling line. Which looks much like any other. Except for the bottles. Harvey’s is the last brewery in the UK to use returnable bottles. I’m amazed to hear that. Returnable bottles are dead common in Holland.
I say the bottling line was our final stop. Final stop before the sampling room, I should have said. It’s a pretty tiny space with a few casks along one wall and a sink. Miles fetches some bottles of Imperial Stout for us to try. Without labels, as they need to know the destination before labelling the bottles. Obviously, ones for the US require different labels with all the US legal requirements on them.
I should remember what Miles tells us about the fermentation. Because I was at his presentation on Harvey’s Imperial Stout in March this year. Harvey’s has a particular and peculiar secondary conditioning. They don’t add Brettanomyces, as you might expect. Instead it’s a third yeast in their pitching blend that’s responsible. It does nothing during primary and during the first nine months in tank it remains dormant. Then all hell breaks loose and there’s a violent fermentation.
The yeast responsible is neither Saccharomyces nor Brettanomyces but Debaryomyces, something I’ve never heard of. It certainly makes a very interesting beer.
Harvey’s have also started making an unaged version of their Imperial Stout called Prince of Denmark. It’s a good bit weaker, much sweeter and without the aged character from the Debaryomyces. But it’s still a cracking drink.
Before we leave, Miles gives some bottles to take with us. Including both versions of the Stout. But we can’t resist diving into their shop on the way out to pick up some more bottles. The others buy other memorabilia, too. But I’m under strict instructions from Dolores: “Don’t bring back any more junk, Ronald.”
We’ve a little while to wait for our train. But handily there’s a licensed buffet on the platform. No interesting beers, so I get us a round of Glenmorangie. “Do you want to drink them here or take them with you?” How civilised.
Despite us travelling against the grain, there’s another scrum for seats. We sit next to a young chap with a bottle of Peroni in front of him. As we’re all brandishing beers, it seems an appropriate place to sit.
After we’ve cracked our beers we get chatting with a woman in her fifties sitting across the aisle. I can see that she’s slightly bemused by our beer obsession. She didn’t even realise there was a brewery in Lewes. We drink a few beers, chat and soon the journey has evaporated.
Back in Victoria, we need to quickly cross town for dinner. Which is with the full Goose Island crew at the Jugged Hare on Chiswell Street. That gets my attention. The home of Whitbread’s brewery, most of which is still standing. The pub must have been a Whitbread house at one time as it’s in the same block as the brewery.
Not that it’s really a pub. Well not most of it. A restaurant really, with a small bar at the front. The food, as you might guess from the name, is mostly game. I have a steak. My third in two days. That’ll be my meat ration for the next couple of months.
It’s been a long and tiring day. But a fun one. I sleep the sleep of the well sated.
The Jugged Hare
49 Chiswell St,
London EC1Y 4SA.
Tel: +44 20 7614 0134