Drank by Ben McCormick.
Something about the sign leaning against a tree outside the shut gate told me I’d come to the right place. It read: Please beware uneven paths, hose pipes, rose thorns, silly dog, aggressive gander and irritable proprietor. THANK YOU. This was whitewashed on to a peeling painted black board, which was nestled in the shade among some dying grass and fallen leaves. A less impressive looking but equally forthright sign that railed against the largesse of its National Trust neighbours had been pinned to the gate by the Kitchen Garden Brewery’s owners. It urged visitors to be serious about buying something, as there is no admission charge. The implication being, if you don’t want any beer, wine, port, cider, Champagne, plants or any of the other items that are for sale, kindly don’t bother.
It’s the kind of eccentric directness I’ve been trying and failing to develop for some time. So within mere moments of chatting to the irritable proprietor, the cut of whose jib was as likeable as that of any man’s, I’d been persuaded out of all my available cash.
Kitchen Garden Brewery is said to be Britain’s smallest commercial brewery. It sits inside a unobtrusive redbrick Victorian walled garden just to the west of the Sheffield Park National Trust property and on the other bank of the Ouse from the Bluebell Railway, which is just above North Chailey on the A275 in East Sussex. The grounds are bursting with plant-life and, as I arrived, the irritable proprietor was potting more plants for sale. Almost the first thing he said was that they hadn’t got much beer left, which I took as a good sign. Stepping into the shop, I found he was a man of his word. Around 60 bottles of five or six different beers remained. All simply and tastefully labelled with a dangling hop plant motif, the name of the brewery and the beer. In small-ish print. I needed my glasses to read the sleeve-notes.
I’d looked at the website before visiting. Again, fairly basic, but it does introduce the silly dog that the sign warned me about, claiming the cur – Fred – is a nuisance. The range of beers is pretty rudimentary too, although amid the best bitters and traditional ales there’s curious orange Hefeweizen and an elderflower pale ale. Nothing to get the beeroscenti moist at the palate, but some honest looking fare with a twist all the same.
And it got me thinking. These are the kind of beers I’d have been much more enthused about before I ruined my tastebuds with new world hops and sour Lambics, the curse of the modern-day craft beer aficionado. I wonder whether I’ve grown out of them or simply become bored with what they have to offer. The beer equivalent of a failing marriage going through a depressingly clichéd seven-year itch. I wonder whether coming back to the land (I’m drinking this in a small village called Kingston-near-Lewes) will rekindle my love, or at least admiration, for now all too frequently sneered at ales.
So I open the Traditional Ale and visibly flinch at the dishwater brown colour and risible levels of natural carbonation. It pours thinly and has all the resistance to flow of diluted water. The smell is of still-proving, wholemeal loaves and it has all the appearance of a university homebrew effort dredged impatiently from a Boots beer kit.
But it’s wonderful. There’s something quite reassuring about how the malt stays with you throughout a sip’s lifetime no matter how much your tastebuds flirt with the hoppy finish. You don’t feel the need to instantly glug more like with some more modern beers; rather you’re quite prepared to sit back and let the flavour slowly do its thing. Like an old farm hand ploughing a field behind an oxen, plodding steadily along and gradually getting on with its job, uncomplaining. It’s the kind of beer they drank before people had colour televisionss or cars with electric windows. One you’d imagine would grace the snug rooms of tumbledown rural public houses that had no electricity or hot running water. A beer to be endured as well as enjoyed, through thick and thin. You need to work at it. In thick tweed overalls, a starched cotton shirt with no collar and hobnail boots. It’s probably the kind of beer people used to drink because they couldn’t trust the local water supply.
And I realise I’ve missed this. The comforting, reliable, uncomplicated certainty of a simple, honest pint. One that looks to have been left behind in the clamour for instant, neophilic gratification. I’ll be going back to the Kitchen Garden before long; I never met the gander.