The Barley Brew

A love of Sussex beer


”All you that have not tasted it
I’ll have you set about it;
No man with pence and common sense
Should ever be without it”                                  John Hollamby


Barley is just one variety of grass – along with wheat, oats and rye it is related to the lawns we’re just now starting to mow and to the lush carpets in pastures where cattle low. Barley is thought to be among the earliest of wild plants domesticated through cultivation by man, over thousands of years. The crop is used in many ways, perhaps most widely as animal fodder but, with its relatively high sugar content it also is the best-suited of its family for the process of malting, by which grain is encouraged to germinate and then, soon after enzymes begin converting starches into sugars, halted again, being raked and turned on a ‘malting floor’ over dry heat. At least, that would be one traditional method. The Maltings in Lewes, until just a few years back home of East Sussex Records Office, is an example of a local building made for just such a purpose.

Grain that has been malted is used in brewing and in distilling – and the making of Maltesers for that matter – but for now let’s concentrate on the brewing of ales and beers, for that is the tradition that is most proud in Sussex.

In lands where cereal crops grow more readily than grapes it follows that brews produced from grain naturally would take a central role as staple fare. In early days brewing was undertaken by monks in monasteries and by women, ‘ale wives’, in their own kitchens and back-yards. Everyone tended to drink a mild brew called ‘small beer’, simply because it was safer than plain water, friendly fermentation having neutralised various life-threatening micro-gremlins and bio-nasties. Ale was the fuel, the ‘liquid bread’, of many hard-working folk and of course some would prefer the stronger brews. Read Bob Copper’s accounts of his father’s and grandfather’s generations, farming on the South Downs – you’ll see that providing ale for the workers was fairly routine and probably factored-in as a running cost.

Public houses would sometimes be the front-rooms of good domestic brewers, a gathering point for a local community where news was shared, gossip swapped and, later on, songs sung. Successful brewers might supply others, those able to serve but not produce – and so developed commercial brewing, an industry that has generated great wealth down the centuries and created its own sector in the arena of pure business.

In Sussex we’ve seen many names come and go in fortune’s tides: brewing concerns under the names of Southdown, Tamplins, Michell’s of Steyning, Gooche’s of Hailsham, Beards, Verralls and Ballards in Lewes. But today the name that I and best friends hold most dear is their survivor, Harvey’s, a traditional independent brewer still producing glorious beer that, to simple peasants like ourselves, is probably the closest we’ll ever get to a religious experience. Honestly, it’s not just us: head brewer Miles Jenner and Harvey’s beers do win lots of awards – we can be proud of them.

And of course here I am expressing a preference in personal taste; not everyone agrees and there are many other fine Sussex brews with which to spend time, conducting careful research and drawing comparisons – no two the same! In recent years there’s been a revival of ‘on-site’ brewing, with publicans finding opportunities to combine hobby interests with profitability, developing ‘name’ recipes and special blends to suit the tastes of customers, occasionally promoting more successful brews further afield. Such ‘micro-breweries’ are flourishing in pubs in Brighton, at East Hoathly, Isfield and elsewhere.

The history of brewing in Lewes has been the focus of a project, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, tracing industrial and agricultural links from the 18th Century to the present day. Under the title ‘Ale and Hearty’ it draws together stories of people’s working lives in local breweries, their communities and relationships with associated rural crafts and trades that have operated through our county over a period of at least 200 years.

For more information visit

“It is of good ale to you I’ll sing,
And to good ale I’ll always cling,
I like my pot filled to the brim
And I’ll drink all you like to bring.
O, good ale, thou art my darling,
Thou art my joy both night and morning.”


Also worth reading: British Brewing by Gavin D Smith

Early To Rise by Bob Copper

John Barleycorn is the figurative character in folklore, who gets bashed about and sacrificed in a series of unholy rituals bearing close resemblance to the agricultural and pre-brewing processes that make possible our much-favoured liquor. Despite all the punishment meted out to him Barleycorn soon rises again in the fields – first green, then to mature and grow another golden beard. It is this miracle of resilience, fertility and hope that is celebrated with devotional fervour in the ale-houses of Britain… (please believe me).

“There were three men came from the west
Their fortunes for to try
And these three men made a solemn vow
John Barleycorn should die.

So they ploughed and sowed and harrowed him in
Threw clay upon his head
And there they made a solemn vow
John Barleycorn was dead.

Then they let him lay for a long, long time
While rain from heaven did fall
Then little Sir John sprang up his head
And sure amazed them all.”