A return to the Sussex countryside rekindled a forgotten love for real ales and the traditional English pubs which serve them. But, like most strangers to the Sceptred Isle, I was horrified when presented with my first pint of ale. It looked and stank like warm, stale piss.
Like most strangers to the Sceptred Isle I was horrified when presented with my first pint of ale.
It was in a pub somewhere around Leicester Square in London, long enough ago for the floor to be strewn with straw, from which emanated an overpowering sickly-sweet odour of fermentation and God-knows what else.
Since even soft drinks were stored on a shelf behind the bar in those days I agreed, reluctantly, to sample a glass of ‘bitter’ and bitter it was. It looked and stank, to my mind, like a glass of warm, stale piss. The taste only confirmed the impression.
That would have been the end of it, but for a man in an ancient and unwashed Arran jumper who patiently explained, years later, that I had simply not been exposed to a decent drop.
On his earnest recommendation and explanation of the crucial elements which combine to make the perfect pint, I learned to love real ales and recently rekindled the romance on a visit back to the heart of deepest, darkest Sussex in the southeast corner of England.
It was still in the grip of the worst winter in 50 years and, apart from a single desultory slog over a muddy field, the trip was largely confined to a series of pubs, most of the kind called ‘country’ with low beams and roaring fires, old fashioned landlords, and patrons who looked as if they’d been there for a dozen years and would be there for a dozen more.
In such a setting it seemed impossible to say anything other than “a half of your Best, please” – since my pint days are long behind me – and raise a toast to that half-remembered man in the Arran jumper.
‘Best’ is the term given to a brewery’s mid-strength premium beer.
My pub tour began in the coastal town of Hastings with a glass of Crofters, still my number one, at the First In Last Out, known to all as the FILO. It’s not the prettiest English pub, but it’s one of the friendliest. It was my local once and I ordered a half for old times’ sake.
The FILO is a free house, which means it isn’t ‘tied’ to a brewing company, and for 25 years has been distinguished for its own range of beers, crafted on the premises until 2011 when the brewing operation moved to a Grade II listed stable a few hundred yards up the road.
From there I took a meandering tour through the little villages of East Sussex and their pubs, taking in the Six Bells at Chiddingly. I used to hack out there on a Friday night with my workmates for some thumping live music, their legendary cheesy garlic bread and an ale or two.
Then there was the legendary Yew Tree at Chalvington, which boasts one of the oldest cricket grounds in the world. W.G. Grace strode its green as did, more recently, the famous Australian Crusaders. There are also leather straps hanging from the beams, a handy alternative for those times when there’s no leaning room at the bar.
At the Kings Head in Horsebridge I encountered a new drop. The Long Man Brewery is a newcomer to Sussex, only brewing for just over a year at Litlington, and producing a very pleasant Best.
I broke with tradition at the Black Duck in Warbleton, where I sampled a half of Wainwright, a Lancashire beer more golden than brown with a nice fruity flavour – a good choice for a newbie more used to lagers.
Next stop was the Merrie Harriers at Cowbeech, where I reacquainted myself with Harvey’s Best, flagship of the oldest independent brewery in Sussex and ubiquitous across the county.
In addition to its Best, Harvey’s produces a delicious looking range of seasonal beers with names like Knots of May, Bonfire Boys and their particularly lethal Christmas ale which, in some pubs I’m told, is only served in halves.
Many of these are also sold as bottled ales and the labels were so good looking they made perfect gifts from a weary traveller to the old friends providing rest and recovery along the way.
I sampled Harvey’s Ruby and Old and, while any purist will tell you it’s gotta come straight from the wood to be at its best, they were both excellent. I particularly liked Ruby, with its dark red colour and deep flavour.
But I’m not here to provide tasting notes – when it comes to ales I still feel like an Australian novice. Let the men in the Arran jumpers wax lyrical about nutty flavours and caramel tones and the competing merits of Fuggles or Goldings (two varieties of hops).
I’ll confine myself to the essentials, as explained to me once over a beer. A real ale seems warm and flat to the uninitiated because, in contrast to a lager, it is.
An ale is stored in a cask, at a cool cellar temperature of around 12 degrees, and delivered to your glass by gravity, not carbonation. It’s one thing to brew a tasty beer but its care between brewer’s hand and drinker’s lip is crucial.
A good ale, well cared for, will hit your glass in a creamy cloud which settles into a clear liquid topped with a fine head – not flat, but not fizzy. Its temperature will be cool, not cold, and certainly not warm.
It’s a living thing and it changes as it ages in the cask, deteriorating within just a few days. Like all living things, it thrives in the right conditions and a good pub landlord will deliver you a good beer.
That’s why real ales are often called craft beers and the cellarman’s craft is as crucial as the brewer’s.
When I left England in 2001 the traditional pub was under threat. Too many were being swallowed by monster pub chains and rebadged into parodies of their former glory.
In Eastbourne, another town on the Sussex coast, there was a little pub called the Ancient Lights which overnight became a meaningless Rat and Parrot.
What are Ancient Lights? According to my copy of the 1936 Householder’s Guide to the Law, discovered in a secondhand chest of drawers I bought back in the 1980s,
“In order to maintain an action for deprivation of light, a person must show that he has had the continuous enjoyment of the light for 20 years, and thereby acquired a right to ancient lights.”
An Ancient Light extinguished, a proud tradition cast aside. All over the world it’s possible to drink in a Bull and Bear, a Kings Head, or a Plough but to drink in a sham traditional pub in England seems an absurdity too far.
Nevertheless, in spite of the burgeoning chains and their giant faux-panelled ye olde style establishments, I’m pleased to report that the death of the English pub, so long predicted, is not yet upon us.
It was predicted as long ago as 1945 in John Moore’s glorious hymn to rural England Portrait of Elmbury. I couldn’t better his sentiment so let the last word be his:
A pub, after all, is not just a place for convenient drinking; if it were these modern palaces with their ceaseless fountains of beer would serve the purpose very well.
I would rather that my host was the landlord of a little pub, a poor man drinking with his fellows than a ‘manager’ who has no more in common with his customers than the manager of a chain-store, which is exactly what he is.
I’d rather sit round the fire with half a dozen good fellows in the Wheatsheaf or the Barrel and drink beer from the wood than perch myself on a high stool at a long bar in a roadhouse… with stuff called beer which comes sizzling out of a tap after having been pumped through miles of chromium-plated pipes by hundreds of pounds worth of machinery.