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Quest for Britain's Holy Ale

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The Perfect Pint. The aroma, the color, the head it forms when poured just right—it's not just the smoky-sweet taste that makes Harveys Best Bitter some beer lovers' ultimate drink

My 10-day trip was a quest to track down the perfect pint.

Somewhere in the misty highlands above Lewes, I'd been told, was a farm where a country vicar brews a very good ale. But it had been more than two hours since I'd left the gates of the medieval market town, following a centuries-old chalk footpath. As the trail rose above castle turrets and zigzagged through upland pastures, a thick fog descended, transforming the springtime greens of the Sussex countryside into an eerie—and gorgeous—gray and white.

I was on the verge of turning back when a hunting dog lurched out of the fog, followed by a heavyset man. "Haven't heard of the farm or the vicar," the man said, "but this path goes down to Ditchling, where Vera Lynn lives. Remember her? She sang 'We'll Meet Again' and 'White Cliffs of Dover.' Must be in her 90s now, but she's still there tottering on, bless her."

For lovers of hiking and history, the South Downs are a wonderland of Iron Age hill forts, castle ruins, and medieval villages whose time—tilted inns have hosted travelers since the Norman invasion. Rising above a busy corner of the world, the Downs offer some of England's most peaceful and appealing geography, a gently rolling countryside of farms punctuated by small woodlands and large herds of sheep. The 100-mile South Downs Way, a footpath and bridleway near Britain's south coast, is the centerpiece of South Downs National Park, the newest link in the U.K. network. There was clearly a part of me that wished I would stumble upon my younger self in England, the more adventurous and impetuous me buried under the swirling dust of my adult life.

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But I didn't come here for the scenery-or the charmingly quirky locals, for that matter. My 10-day trip was a quest to track down a long-lost love, and I'd hoped that elusive brewmaster of a vicar could show me the way.

For a Midwesterner nursed on Anheuser-Busch, that maiden pint of Harveys Sussex Best Bitter was a revelation.

I took my first sip of ale at 22, a few weeks after graduating from college and deciding to sell my car and buy a one-way ticket to post-punk London. For a Midwesterner nursed on Anheuser-Busch, that maiden pint of Harveys Sussex Best Bitter was a revelation. Fresh-hopped and smoky sweet, the flavors splashed across my tongue in waves: first the gritty taste of grain, then a blast of clearing hops. Someone had put a whole lot of love into this beer, I thought. From that moment on, I was determined to love it right back.

Still, it took me 25 years to make another pilgrimage to Sussex—work, kids, the usual—and by then the trail had gone cold. My journey had been made more difficult thanks to the diminished state of the traditional English pub. According to the British Beer and Pub Association, pubs in the U.K. have been closing at the rate of 28 a week, victims of changing tastes and high beer taxes. Of course, you can still find a pint. With 52,000 pubs, there's one for every 120 or so Brits. But more and more often, you have to brave a "gastropub," the kind of establishment that puts more stock in its pheasant breast and crème brûlée than stocking a decent selection of beer.

I started at Lewes's St. Thomas-a-Becket Church—after all, he was the patron saint of brewers.

So for my mission, I started at Lewes's St. Thomas-a-Becket Church—after all, he was the patron saint of brewers. Architecturally, well-preserved Lewes is one of England's gems; the town dates back to the 9th century, when it served as a Saxon fort overlooking the river Ouse. Culturally, the town is known for its history of creative defiance. Once infamous for its riotous Bonfire Boys societies, Lewes was also home to the novelist Virginia Woolf and the revolutionary Thomas Paine. Paine's 1776 pamphlet Common Sense was instrumental in convincing American colonists to toss out King George III.

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But it was a current resident I wanted to visit most: Harveys Brewery. Crossing the iron swing bridge leading out of town over the river Ouse, I paused to watch steam tumbling out of the brewery's vents. For a moment, I considered bowing toward the red-brick building that houses it. "I've actually seen people do it," head brewer Miles Jenner said, greeting me at the loading dock. "As you might imagine, that creates a rather daunting responsibility." Jenner led me into a room stacked high with bags of pale malt and bins of whole-leaf hops. I scooped up handfuls of Fuggles and Goldings hop cones, which coated my hands with an oily aroma that clung to me, like a welcome natural air freshener, all day.

I'd begun to realize that my search for the perfect beer represented something bigger than a mere drink.

Jenner and I then walked across the cobbled street to the John Harvey Tavern, to sample the product. "Two pints of Best," Jenner told the young barman. As we watched him pump it up from the cellar, I braced for my long-awaited reunion. "Let me give you the second one out," Jenner said, sliding the pint over. "I think it's always just a little better." It was very good—as smooth as I remembered it, with an earthy yeastiness and a fresh bitterness. But it didn't blow me away the way I remembered. Maybe it was the cold I was nursing. Or maybe I'd begun to realize that my search for the perfect beer represented something bigger than a mere drink. There was clearly a part of me that wished I would stumble upon my younger self in England, the more adventurous and impetuous me who was buried under the swirling dust of my adult life. A rather daunting responsibility to ask from a pint of beer indeed.

That afternoon, I made my way up to the town's magnificent 11th-century castle, stronghold of the First Earl of Surrey, a brother-in-law of William the Conqueror. I took my time ambling down the narrow backstreets called "twittens," stopping into antiques shops and rare-book dealers tucked into crooked wood-and-stone buildings shaded by sprawling beeches. Then I took off for my odyssey on the South Downs Way.


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I took off for my odyssey on the South Downs Way.

Walking the gently undulating trail was fairly easy, despite the daily downpours. I saw few people (the lousy weather?), but I could feel the weight of history. At Bignor Hill, the trail traces the path of the Roman road from Chichester to London, dating from a.d. 70. Near Ditchling, the trail, cutting deep into the chalk, dates back 6,000 years to the Stone Age. Crossing the Ouse again at Rodmell, I paused at the spot where Woolf drowned herself in 1941 by walking into the river with her pockets full of stones.

One day, I found myself hiking in the unbelievably green Cuckmere Valley when I walked past the trail leading to Berwick. Backtracking through the low weald-a term descended from an ancient Saxon word meaning "wild, wooded hills"—I looked up and saw a 226-foot-high figure of a man with a staff in each hand watching over me. Suddenly, I realized that I had passed the Long Man of Wilmington before, on a weekend trip from London 25 years earlier. Stymied by the unexpected flashback, I spotted the Cricketers Arms, a flint stone cottage pub. I approached through a brightly flowered garden and opened the door to a series of rooms thick with conviviality. Sitting next to a crackling fire with a pint of Timothy Taylor's Landlord and some chunks of strong Stilton cheese, I began to reconsider the whole notion of a perfect pint. Maybe it wasn't the beer at all. Maybe it had more to do with the drinker's mood or the quality of companionship. Or was it something beyond the reach of language and intellect, such as the atmosphere of the pub itself?

As I traveled from village to village, I scribbled geeky "tasting notes" in my notebook.

As I traveled from village to village, I scribbled geeky "tasting notes" in my notebook: At the Chequer Pub in Steyning, I had pints of Ringwood's Old Thumper (soft and meaty). At the Bridge Inn in Shoreham, I shook the rain off my jacket and sampled Cottage Western Arches (clean and mellow; a bit light in body and bitterness). I found myself sitting next to a poodle perched on his own bar stool while I discussed the weather with the dog's elderly companion. At Shoreham's Red Lion Inn, I drank Hepworth Iron Horse (tangy and abundantly carbonated) and chatted with the pub's owner, Natalie Parker, about the ghost who is said to haunt the premises. "Sometimes, he'll tap me on the shoulder late at night when I'm sweeping up," she joked, ducking under low, blackened beams laid in the 16th century. 

"It's more of a nuisance than a fright." As I approached the pretty village of Alfriston, on the banks of the Cuckmere River, the patchwork of farmers' fields and beech woods gave way to bigger, more dramatic landscapes. I climbed along the chalk ridge to Beachy Head, where the trail coasts atop white cliffs that soar more than 500 feet over the surf below. This is one of the most dramatic stretches of coastline in southern England, with top-of-the-world views every bit as striking as those found at Dover, 75 miles to the east.

After spending a morning leaning into 50-knot gusts, I practically fell through the thatched roof at the Tiger Inn. In need of a bracing pick-me-up, I asked for the thickest, darkest thing on tap. Publican Charlie Davies-Gilbert, who recently started a brewery in a nearby barn, brought a pint of Parson Darby's Hole, named for a 17th-century minister who set lanterns in the caves along the cliffs to warn sailors about the rocks. "I imagine him sitting in the cave, getting the sailors he'd saved drunk," Davies-Gilbert said.

Whether I crossed paths with that perfect pint—and whether it even existed—seemed less important with each day I spent discovering the landscapes and history of the South Downs.

I had been roaming in the South Downs for nearly a week, and I'd put away a lot of very good beer. But the notion that I might find a mainline to my memories in a foamy glass was beginning to seem unlikely. Then again, it occurred to me that the act of looking might be at least as worthwhile, perhaps more so, than the payoff itself. Whether I crossed paths with that perfect pint—and whether it even existed—seemed less important with each day I spent discovering the landscapes and history of the South Downs.

I had mostly given up when I detoured off the trail to the village of Salehurst to meet hop farmer Andrew Hoad, who cultivates the flowers that bitter Harveys beers. As we headed toward his fields, passing his distinctive witch's-hat oast house where the hops are dried, Hoad told me that he almost retired after a devastating wilt destroyed his crop two years in a row. We walked out between hedges, where rows of chin-high plants were twisting around vertical lengths of twine, climbing toward wires strung overhead. "Just about everything in hops has its own terminology," Hoad said. "They're bines, not vines. They're grown in gardens, not fields. The blooming part is called a cone, not a flower."

Could it be—the perfect pint?

By the time we arrived back at Hoad's house, built in 1340, the sky was clearing. It was the first trace of blue I'd seen in days. Together, we walked down the hill to his local pub, the Salehurst Halt. With the weather clearing, at least half the village had converged at the Halt. The crowd was in high spirits, talking and relaxing at the picnic tables in the garden and under bouquets of hop flowers hanging from the beams. Hoad made his way through the throng and came back with a round of Harveys Best Bitter, the same almost-but-not-quite-perfect beer I'd had at the beginning of the trip. 

We raised our glasses to the evening, and as I took my first sip, drawing the ale in through a lace of closely packed bubbles, I felt a shudder. It was exactly as I remembered it 25 years ago: smooth and grainy, with a breaking wave of hops so fresh that the beer might have been drawn through Hoad's hop garden. Could it be—the perfect pint? Perhaps. Or maybe I'd finally come to the place in my journey where I could savor the moment—the people, the pub, the buoyant atmosphere—along with the beer.