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Retro Bottles from Harvey’s

A £37.50 mixed case from Harvey’s of Lewes brought us a selection of 24 gloriously old school beers in tiny 275ml bottles.

They look as if they’ve been pulled from a dusty shelf behind the bar at a pub that closed in 1983 — not ‘faux-vintage’ but evidence that, if you wait long enough, most graphic design starts to look cool again. Here, we’ve focused on four that belong to styles popular in the mid-20th century but which have long been abandoned by most other breweries.

Blue Label (3.6%) sends all the signals of ‘light ale’ — a type of beer that all but disappeared with the arrival of ‘premium bottled ales’ in the 1990s. Being based, however, on the almost universally adored Sussex Best — the brown bitter even the most desperate hop-hounds conceded isn’t boring — turns out to be rather good. The carbonation is arguably too low — getting a head on the beer was tough and it slipped away instantly — except that this seems to give it a hop-oily, tongue-coating richness. The core flavour is toffee, yes, but it’s heavily seasoned with drying, grassy hops that leave a final twist of medicinal bitterness on the tongue. In short, it’s good beer in its own right, and much better, or at least more interesting, than many over-cooked bottled bitters available in supermarkets.

India Pale Ale (3.2%) is similar — amber-gold, caramelised sugar, stewed tea hoppiness — but watery with it. We reckon it’s a pretty good example of what IPA meant to British pub drinkers 30 or 40 years ago but how many beer geeks trained on Goose Island and BrewDog Punk have been let down by it in the last five years? It wasn’t any effort to drink but we’ll have another Blue Label next time, thanks.

Bloomsbury Brown (2.8%, AKA Nut Brown) is another type of beer that used to be a staple in pub fridges but is these days sadly rare. Like light ale, it’s usually employed as a mixer for enlivening dodgy pints, or for turning one type of beer into another (i.e. simulating draught mild in a ‘brown split’). Harvey’s example is at tax-break strength (or rather, weakness) but actually manages to squeeze plenty into it: milk chocolate, bitter burnt sugar, and just a touch of sourness — barely enough to register consciously, but sufficient to provide a subtle peppiness. Unlike Mann’s, which isn’t all that much fun to drink on its own, this made for a pleasant, undemanding sipper, like boozy cola. (Here’s a note we scribbled down which might or might not convey something to you: ‘Tastes like an Austin Allegro looks.’)

Sweet Stout (also 2.8%) is a Mackeson substitute and, again, is just a bit more interesting than the big brand name it resembles. In the main, it evokes cold coffee, served with a good teaspoon of demerara. There’s also more of that almost acrid caramel flavour. (Perhaps from caramel…?) The carbonation is the highest of the three beers producing a solid, off-white head which hangs around, but it is still quite restrained, giving the beer a certain silkiness. Mann’s fans (there are some) should check it out.

If you’re trying to cut down or pace yourself these would be excellent beers to have in the pantry. Equally, they’re just the thing if you’ve got the urge to host a party with a retro feel, or want to humour relatives who miss old-fashioned bottled beer this Christmas.

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Coming in 2016 from acclaimed beer writer Martyn Cornell: ‘Chilled: the story of the pub fridge’.

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