Food and Drink: The beer drinker's malt whisky: Guinness may be giving up its bottle-conditioned brew, but everyone else - including Oddbins - is taking them on. Michael Jackson reports on the flavour of the month

Methode Champenoise beer? Real beer in a bottle? However they are described, bottle-conditioned brews seem to be the buzz in the beer world. These are the brews that enjoy a secondary fermentation in the bottle, on a sediment of living yeast. In no other form does beer have quite such lively, fruity, spicy flavours.

Just a moment, though. Isn't that the form in which Guinness is withdrawing its black brew? Yes: but that exit will be matched by the entrance this month of no fewer than three newcomers.

Oddbins is launching an own- label brew described simply as Bottle-Conditioned Ale, and another cheekily called Black Russian Beer, and a respected country brewer is introducing a porter in the same form.

The Bottle-Conditioned Ale is amber-red in colour, with a soft, fresh, lightly tart palate and a late dryness. It is a slightly drier, lighter rival to the bottle-conditioned Worthington White Shield.

The Black Russian is almost opaque, with both sweetness and dryness and a bitter-chocolate character that comes from brown malt. It is a characterful but less hefty or potent younger cousin to Courage's bottle-conditioned Imperial Russian Stout.

Both of the Oddbins' products were created by brewer Jim Pryor, who worked in Burton and Rutland before spending a year or two setting up 'English' pubs in Russia. His new products were inspired by the Burton pale ales once exported to colonial India, and London porters and stouts shipped to St Petersburg in the days of the Tsarist empire.

The London porter and stout tradition was strongly associated with Southwark where - like Courage's - the Jenner family had a brewery. Miles Jenner of that family is now head brewer at Harvey's, in the parish of Cliffe, down the hill from Lewes, Sussex. This month he launches a bottle- conditioned porter.

One side of Cliffe High Street is medieval, and its most attractive building is the shop offering Harvey's beers, along with country wines, liqueurs and spirits (including a ghostly cavalier who is said to appear occasionally).

Harvey's has been in business since the 1790s. Down the side of the shop, an alley leads to the towered, half-timbered structure that is Britain's most elaborate Victorian-Gothic brewery, much of it dating from 1881.

There is a hint of the local shipbuilding industry about the architecture. The brewery has the appearance of being moored at a quay on the river Ouse, whose floods it frequently suffers. It was extended in the same style a few years ago, and the work was done so well that the building was later listed.

Even in 1881, some brewers were ceasing to bottle-condition their beers and beginning to filter and pasteurise them for ease of handling. In the course of the present century, fashions in beer have changed from porters to similar but fuller-bodied stouts, then to mild and bitter ales and finally to lagers. As the more sophisticated drinker has rediscovered these traditions, he has worked his way backwards through history.

Harvey's Victorian brewery, impeccably maintained, is thriving through an awareness of its roots. Unlike many breweries, it specifies the varieties of barley (including the classic Maris Otter) to be used by its maltsters, in Hertfordshire, Suffolk and Norfolk. It has its hops grown to order in Kent and Sussex, and has encouraged farmers to plant new gardens in its home county. The names of the grower and farm are chalked above every bale of hops in the brewery's store.

The brewery's water comes from its own well, plumbing the chalky downs that rise steeply behind its tower. The beer is fermented with a sturdy brewing yeast from Yorkshire.

Three years ago, the brewery launched a Tom Paine strong bitter and pale ale, to celebrate the bicentenary of the publication of The Rights of Man. Paine lived in Lewes and worked there as an excise man. Last year, with both bottle-conditioning and porter enjoying revivals, the brewery decided to combine the two. 'People are forever asking what beer used to taste like, and I had always dreamed of providing the answer,' explains Mr Jenner. 'With the growing interest in porter, it now seems a commercial reality to provide such a product. Having decided that, it would be a shame not to present the beer in its original, natural state, bottle-conditioned.'

He went back to the heyday of porter to find a specification in the daily journal of Harvey's head brewer in 1859. The 'recipe' specified the proportions of pale, crystal and black malts (no sugar) - and equal amounts of Kent and Sussex hops, without indicating variety. Hops have become much more acidic since those days. Mr Jenner consulted hop merchants as to the likely acidity of the cones a century and a half ago, and tried to match that in his choice of variety (Goldings and Fuggles) and quantity.

Porters traditionally had a long maturation. Few of the revivalist examples have, but Harvey's does. The first new batch of Harvey's 1859 Porter was made last August and was matured until December, at which point it was bottled on its lees and laid down at the brewery for a further few weeks.

I have just sampled that brew. It has a dense, rocky head; a solid black colour; a frisky liveliness; an alcohol content of 4.8 per cent; and a palate of almost impenetrable complexity and completeness: notes of sourdough bread, toast, very restrained fruitiness, a suggestion of oak (though none is used), a hint of iron - all these flavours tightly locked together. This would be a wonderful beer with shellfish, down the river at Newhaven or Brighton. It brought back a long-forgotten, Proustian memory of the first bottle of Guinness to tickle my teenage palate 35 years ago.

The bottle-conditioned 1859 Porter is available by mail-order from Harvey's Brewery Shop, 6 Cliffe High Street, Lewes, Sussex (0273 480217). It will be available as cask-conditioned draught at the Sussex Beer Festival, at Hove Town Hall, on 26-27 February.

(Photograph omitted)

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