The Return of Truman’s Yeast
Truman’s yeast from the old brewery has been cryogenically preserved since 1958
For more than half a century, the yeast from the heyday of Truman’s Brewery in Brick Lane in the nineteen-fifties has been in suspended animation, stored in liquid nitrogen at a temperature of one hundred and ninety-six degrees below zero as part of the National Collection of Yeast Cultures. Yet at last the time has come for the yeast to return to the world and work its magic again, as the new Truman’s Brewery in Hackney Wick nears completion and Truman’s Beer will be brewed in the East End once more.
“Anyone can follow a recipe but it is the yeast that makes the beer great,” explained Jack Hibberd, the General Manager of Truman’s, gripped with feverish anticipation as we sped up the M11 towards the Yeast Bank in Norwich yesterday, “All the great brewers have their own yeast and we want to be great brewers, so we need our own yeast too.“
Confronted with an anonymous concrete facility in rolling parkland on the outskirt of the town, we were whisked through security to meet the yeast geeks within. “Our aim is to collect a specimen of each yeast strain upon the planet,” revealed Chris Bond, the Collection Manager, “Yet the fifteen hundred species that have been identified are perhaps less than one hundredth of those that exist, so we still have a way to go.” Nevertheless, as the loving guardian of micro-organisms, Chris is personally responsible for tending more than four thousand strains in the collection.
As well as yeast, the technicians here are guardians of secrets, since they offer a confidential deposit service that allows the country’s brewing industry, from multi-nationals to micro-breweries, to preserve its distinctive and precious yeast against mishap – whether through contamination or some other calamity. “One brewery was on the phone last year as the flood waters were rising,” recalled Chris,“it showed the value of the collection.” Apart from these secret deposits, the national collection is open to the brewing industry, seeking to explore the possibilities of the different yeasts available. “We preserve yeast that is useful, or that’s potentially useful, or to prevent it becoming extinct,” Chris admitted, leading us into the narrow windowless room where the history of human civilisation is preserved through thousands of yeasts that have evolved through usage for brewing and baking down the ages.
Chris donned a visor and protective gloves before opening the refrigerated chest, setting wafts of dry ice floating and revealing his precious charges sleeping peacefully in their frosty beds. In here, six different yeasts from Spitalfields are preserved – four bottom cropping and two top cropping varieties. Each very different from modern yeasts. “What you want is character and that’s what a yeast gives us – ownership of the beer, so that it belongs to Truman’s and the history of Truman’s.” Jack Hibberd emphasised, turning proud and paternal. The two top cropping yeasts will be used by Truman’s Beer at the new brewery and it has been suggested that their different qualities may reflect the company’s practice in the nineteenth century, producing mainly porter and light ale.
I was enraptured to learn of the romance of yeast – of the story of the founder of Carlsberg who carried his yeast back from Munich in his stove-pipe hat, of the yeast recently discovered in a Welsh slate mine that is resistant to heavy metal, of the yeast discovered by a yeast hunter in a gall growing upon oaks in Patagonia, and of the theory that yeast may have originated in China where primitive wild yeasts are still to be found. “We never get two days the same here,” enthused Chris, “I had a little soirée in bacteria but then I saw the light. Yeast is always interesting, there’s nowhere on the planet where you can’t isolate samples – from the depths of the ocean to Antarctica.”
“We get promises of beer and trips to breweries but it never happens,” Chris confessed to me with barely concealed disappointment once we returned to the laboratory, adding “I spend my evenings drinking beer and producing music.” So before we departed, Jack Hibberd extended an invitation to all the staff to visit the new Truman’s Brewery.
Back in Hackney Wick, the brewery awaits the arrival of the mash tuns and other large equipment, currently indicated by chalk circles upon the floor. Yet already, Ben Ott, the new Master Brewer, has been making small test brews to explore the potential of the Truman’s yeast from Brick Lane and, when we removed the top from a bucket, we discovered the yeast undulating of its own accord. After decades of suspended animation, it was truly alive again.
As the conclusion to our day trip, it was necessary to sample the trial brews to gain refreshment, and I found the beer fragrant and soft to taste with a subtle complexity of flavour that was compelling. “We’re trying to put the soul back into our beer,” confided Jack between sips, “and so far the yeast has exceeded our expectations.”
A flocculent ale-producing strain of cerevisiae.
Chris Bond, Collections Manager tends to his cache of more than four thousand strains of yeast
‘Jurassic Park’ for yeast – this building in Norwich contains the National Collection of Yeast Cultures.
The new Truman’s Brewery in Hackney Wick awaits the brewing vessels.
Truman’s yeast from the old brewery undulates as it ferments at the new brewery.
Casks stand ready to be filled with beer.
Truman’s van stands ready to deliver the beer.
The last Truman’s Beer brewed at the old brewery in Brick Lane, initialled by each of the brewers.
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