Derek Prentice, Master Brewer
This is Derek Prentice, master brewer, on a return visit to the Truman Brewery in Brick Lane where he first started out, aged seventeen, in 1968. On the right you can see the dark brick of the old brewery (the colour of the porter that was famously brewed here), and on the left you can see the yellow brick of the new buildings (the colour of the lager that brought the brewery’s demise). In this picture, Derek stands poised between the two walls – in a position that is emblematic of his ambivalence about the changes he has seen in the industry during his long career that began here in Spitalfields. “I helped build the new brewery and I helped close it too,” he confessed to me with a wry smile, “Yet Truman’s gave me a taste for the romance of brewing. What gave me most pleasure was being here at the age of twenty working in the old brewhouse.”
Now that Truman’s Beer is being brewed again, some of those involved in the former Brick Lane brewery have come forward to contribute their experience to the new venture, giving me the opportunity to speak to them about the company, and it was my pleasure to meet Derek as the first in this series of interviews.
We met over a glass of beer in the courtyard outside the Vibe Bar, an eighteenth century building that was once the Brewers’ House, where Derek used to sleep in a bedroom on the top floor when he worked late and early shifts. Rising before dawn to commence the brewing, Derek would return to the Brewers’ House in the early morning where the housekeeper would draw a bath and cook him breakfast before he returned to work again. A pattern of life that feels remote, walking through the fashionable bars, shops and new digital industries that fill these buildings today. Yet for Derek the memory remains vivid, as I quickly realised when he gave me a guided tour which stretched over several hours, talking excitedly almost in a whisper, delighting in the minutiae of brewing, mashing, sparging and pitching – running through the precise activities that took place in each space, while we wove our way through the elaborate palimpsest of old and new buildings that once housed the entire process on this site.
In spite of Derek’s passion for brewing, he came to it almost by chance.“I finished my A levels and was planning to go to university but I didn’t get the grades. So as I was interested in science and I loved beer, I wrote to Watney’s and Truman’s. Then, after two or three weeks here as a lab tech, I decided on a career change because I rather liked it. Brewing involves bringing together a number of disciplines I was interested in.” he explained thoughtfully, before changing tone to add, “And I got to go to Margate twice on a beano from Liverpool St Station with entry to Dreamland and tents serving free beer!”
As a newcomer, Derek was in awe of joining of the vast brewery, housed in the ancient labyrinthine complex, that was a closed society with its own codes and hierarchies.“After a couple of years, I was asked to join the brewing team led by George Brown, a forceful Scotsman who had run a brewery on a ship in World War II. And each year, you were summoned to meet the members of the Buxton family up in the board room, when you got a pay rise. We called it ‘carpet day.’ They’d say, ‘Thankyou very much for your efforts this year and we give you another two and sixpence a week.’” revealed Derek fondly as we walked through the corridors of the Directors House – chased by an over-zealous security guard – where today the paintings (including Gainsborough’s portrait of Ben Truman) are gone from the walls, the busts are absent from the niches and each room houses a different media company.
Leaving the old buildings on Brick Lane behind, Derek led me through a passage to where towering yellow brick manufacturing blocks stretch across Wilkes St and up to Quaker St. This was the expansion that happened in the seventies and eighties as Ben Truman’s seventeenth century house and the nineteenth century brewery gave way to modern industrial production. Truman’s became streamlined to “Truman” and the “s” was painted out on the chimney. In this era, Derek was appointed packaging manager and became in part responsible for the new development, but I could sense an uneasy emotion in him as we explored these spaces. He surveyed the buildings and shook his fist at them, “This yellow brick shit built factory!” he declared. Because, ultimately, it was industrialisation that closed the place down, the culture of economy and efficiency at the Truman Brewery led to its expansion and then to its own extinction too.
“I left in 1989 because I could see how it was going. I like brewing in traditional breweries rather than beer factories, and as early as the seventies the Truman Brewery had become a production facility. It had lost the heart and the family element. What made the brewery special was the people and the characters. There were fantastic people, you had a lot who had done over fifty years and families that had worked here for generations.” said Derek. He became animated with delight at this thought and then stopping in the midst of the crowds of young people who have now adopted these buildings as their social space to confide to me quietly, “I have been searching for it ever since.”
The Truman Brewery in Brick Lane was where Derek Prentice learnt to be a brewer and in his first years there, he had a glimpse of brewing as it had been for centuries in Spitalfields. But subsequently, he saw it corrupted until it became a factory making three different colours of beer and blending them to create each of the brands that the corporate owners required.These conflicting experiences informed Derek’s life, leading him to work next for Young’s for seventeen years and now at Fuller’s in Chiswick – he has spent the rest of his career working for small breweries.
The Truman Brewery as Derek first saw it before the “s” was painted out on the chimney.
The extent of the brewery before the expansion that happened in Derek’s time.
Looking back down Brick Lane.
The Directors’ House
A corridor in the Directors’ House
The Directors’ Dining Room where Derek came to collect his pay rise on “carpet day.”
The Brewers’ House where Derek used to stay in the top floor rooms when was working late shifts.
Derek sitting in the courtyard of the Truman Brewery today.
Portraits copyright © Jeremy Freedman
Archive pictures copyright © Truman’s Beer