The Best Of British Cask Ales Plus Harvey’s Sussex Best Versus Timothy Taylor’s Landlord
A perfect pint of cask ale is almost unbeatable in the beer world—and perhaps only rivalled by German Helles poured straight from a barrel. The greatest cask ales have body and texture, a fullness of flavor but still some soft subtleties. They need to be balanced in malt and hop, even if the beer is rich or powerful. And, when the ale’s been kept impeccably, there’s a zingy, vibrant quality that somehow feels alive in your glass.
The Best Of British Cask Ales Plus Harvey’s Sussex Best Versus Timothy Taylor’s Landlord Photo Gallery
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Walk into most proper British pubs and you’ll see hand-pulls on the bar. Curved wooden handles, a colorful badge attached to the front, and a hidden “engine” that’s directly linked to a cask of ale in the pub’s cellar. That beer leaves the brewery before it’s ready for drinking and undergoes a small secondary fermentation, allowing a gentle carbonation to develop that quite literally brings it to life and gives it a lift of aroma and flavor. The pub needs to store the ale properly and prepare the cask to be served a few days after it arrives there, timing this moment so that the ale reaches its perfect freshness.
Most breweries make cask ale and it’s available around the whole of Britain, though a few standout beers dominate their different areas, with two beers in particular celebrated as regional classics that you must try: Harvey’s Sussex Best in the south and Timothy Taylor’s Landlord in the north. Both beers are frequently available; they are much loved and often well kept—they are traditional British pub ales and I wanted to visit their hometowns to understand them a bit better.
Harvey’s Sussex Best is brewed in the lovely town of Lewes, in Sussex.
Lewes is worth visiting, if you can, for the old town center, castle, and hilly cobbled streets, plus almost every pub serves Harvey’s beers, with their classic Best being a must-have. This is an auburn-colored ale, deep with teacake-like malts that give sweetness before the earthy, fruity bitterness of English hops comes through. That lingering, dry bitterness makes you crave the immediate malt sweetness and creates the kind of drinkability for which these beers are famous. In many ways, Sussex Best is actually like strong black tea—malty, floral, tannic, and bitter, with some added sweetness. That flavor somehow makes it comforting and also wonderfully British. The Brewers Arms, in Lewes, is a perfect place to drink it or, if you’re in London, then go to The Royal Oak, in Borough. This is a Harvey’s pub that feels like your grandmother’s living room—old sheer drapes (net curtains), well-worn wooden floors, and faded rugs; it’s cozy and calm, with old family portraits on the wall. There’s a familiarity to it and the Best is the perfect fit.
Situated by the banks of the River Ouse, Harvey’s Brewery dates back to 1790.
Timothy Taylor’s Landlord is a “classic strong Pale Ale” that’s intrinsically Yorkshire, but it goes beyond England’s biggest county and is a favorite of many drinkers. The beer is brewed in Keighley (pronounced Keef-lee), about 20 minutes from Leeds. It’s amber-gold in color, the malt is a little sweet with some toffee flavor and toastiness, the hops are floral, but it’s all very subtle. The joy of this beer is the smoothness and rounded texture (the soft local water is very significant here), and there’s something incredibly satisfying and unchallenging about it, as if you know after one mouthful that you’re already about to order two more. It’s easy-going, reliable, and just good —it is what it is and fits the no-nonsense Yorkshire temperament very well. Keighley isn’t a big place, but a train goes there directly from Leeds, so it’s worth jumping off and walking a few minutes down the street to the Boltmakers Arms, a cozy little pub with a woodburning fire in winter and a great pint of Landlord all year round. Stay on that train and head to Skipton for The Woolly Sheep Inn for another excellent Landlord, plus some good pub food. Or there’s one Timothy Taylor pub, the Town Hall Tavern, in central Leeds.
Both Sussex Best and Landlord were first brewed in the mid-1950s; they are both classics and both much loved, typically with a bit of a north-south divide, but these two are dramatically different drinks. You have a feeling that the general drinker should fall on one side or the other: the richly malty, deeply and dryly bitter Sussex Best or the smooth, malty, fruity Landlord. Me? I’m having a pint of best.
FIVE BRITISH CASK ALE BUCKET LIST TICKS
• Pint of Adnams Bitter or Broadside near the brewery in Southwold, Suffolk.
• St Austell’s golden, zesty Tribute overlooking the sea in Cornwall.
• The much-loved Thornbridge Jaipur, which shows how well a modern powerful IPA works when served in the traditional way.
• A warming pint of strong, smooth malty Theakston’s Old Peculier after a long walk in Yorkshire.
• An 80/- (80 shilling) in an old Scottish pub, to taste the popular style of years ago (and keep it thriving today).
Fuggles hops are added to both Sussex Best and Landlord.
LOCAL TIP: The Best Cask Ale City in Britain?
Ask 100 British beer-lovers which is the best city in the country for drinking cask ale and you’ll probably get a dozen different responses, but certain places are mentioned consistently. The criteria that make a city great for cask ale are a good variety of pubs—including one or two flagship pubs—the excellent condition of the beer across many different pubs, some very good local breweries, ease of walking around the city, and a general love of cask ale; look for a dominance of it in the pubs, which demonstrates the importance of this type of beer.
The top contenders for the title of Best Cask Ale City in Britain are Sheffield and Leeds, with Manchester, York,
Derby, Norwich, and Edinburgh running close behind. No one can, or will, agree on the very best, but a pub crawl around any of these places will be a very worthwhile ale-drinking experience.