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Financial Times The Financial Times Logo
October 28 2006
Bonfire plot brews after locals lose favourite ale

By Jenny Wiggins


The effigies burned on bonfire night in the Sussex town of Lewes - once home to radical thinker Thomas Paine - have never conformed to tradition. Figures of US President George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden have been set alight alongside traditional bonfire villains such as Guy Fawkes and the Pope of 1605 in the town's feisty annual celebration of the gunpowder plot.

But it appears that corporations rather than politicians are facing ordeal by fire this year as angry residents protest at the removal of their favourite ale, Harveys Best Bitter, from the local pub.

The pub retailer and brewer Greene King, owner of the Lewes Arms, is the alleged villain of this very British piece. Greene King has sold Harveys, a local brew made by a family-run company, in the Lewes Arms together with its own ales since buying the pub in 1998. But it plans to withdraw the ale by the end of the year and replace it with one of its own cask beers and "guest ales" produced by other brewers. Harveys is not on its guest ale list.

Locals who have been drinking Harveys for decades are furious, and are considering burning an effigy intended to represent Greene King on bonfire night. They associate Harveys with the strong community spirit that characterises the pub - exemplified by the esoteric range of activities it hosts such as the Annual World Pea-Throwing Championship. John May, a local and member of the Friends of the Lewes Arms group, says: "If there's no Harveys, the vast majority of people will leave the pub."

The residents' campaign has attracted the support of the Campaign for Real Ale, which promotes beer brewed using traditional ingredients and left to mature in the cask - as well as the backing of Norman Baker, Lewes's Liberal Democrat MP.

Greene King says that it is keen to support its own cask beers, of which it produces more than 20 a year. "The fact that we no longer sell Harveys Old has had no detrimental effect on the Lewes Arms in general or the sales of cask beer in particular," the company says. "The customers who opposed the move in the first instance seem now to be more than happy with our great choice of beers."

Harveys Brewery is somewhat more sanguine than the town's residents about the disappearance of Harveys bitter. Bill Inman, its marketing manager, says that Greene King, as the owner of the Lewes Arms, has "every right" to sell its own beer. But he is unsure whether the pub will be able to survive without it.

Harveys sells 35,000 to 40,000 pints of its ale at the Lewes Arms every year - 10 times the amount it typically sells at other pubs.

Mr Inman attributes the residents' campaign to keep the ale to the town's history of non-conformism. He adds: "The Lewes Arms is the sort of place where radical thought continues to this day."


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