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The Return of Truman’s Yeast

June 20, 2013
by the gentle author

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.

You may also like to read about

The New Truman Brewery

Tony Jack, Chauffeur at Truman’s

Derek Prentice, Master Brewer

At Truman’s Brewery, 1931

The Return of Truman’s Beer

11 Responses leave one →
  1. jeannette permalink
    June 20, 2013

    i can die happy now.

  2. Greg Tingey permalink
    June 20, 2013

    Several points.
    I really hope they make a go of it!
    Trumans was the first beer I tasted, at age 14 – quite legally – it was with a meal.
    “Ben Truman” – VERY hoppy & bitter.
    Let’s hope for a true-mans revivial.
    I presume worshippers of Ninkasi will appreciate this …..
    Oe technical point, your photo of the “empties” awaiting filling should be titled: …
    “BARRELS stand ready to be filled with beer.”
    The ones shown look like “kils”, that is kilderkins of 18 gallons each.
    ( Pin, Kil, Barrel … 9, 18, 36 imperial gallons IIRC )
    A “keg” is a parallel-sided, & always pressurised vessel, holding 10 gallons, & usually containing something that no civilised person would wish to allow anywhere near their lips, euw.

  3. June 20, 2013

    Marvellous that such a place exists!

  4. June 20, 2013

    They look like firkins to me. The cask sizes are: Pin, Firkin, Kil, Barrel at 4.5, 9, 18, 36 gallons respectively.

  5. June 20, 2013

    The stuff of dreams. Can’t wait for the pint!

  6. Jonathan Howarth permalink
    June 20, 2013

    “Anyone can follow a recipe but it is the yeast that makes the beer great”

    This comment just reminded me of a story an amateur brewing friend once told me. He used to write to the breweries that made his favourite beers and ask openly for a sample of their yeast.

    He’d invariably receive by return a polite letter declining his request. The sly old dog would then take swabs from this letter and grow up cultures of any yeast that he found on the brewery note paper or envelope to try them out in his home brew.

    Probably highly illegal but you have to admire his audacity.

  7. Gary permalink
    June 20, 2013

    It is good to see another old brew returning. This is dear to my heart, when I started drinking in 1945 as a 14 year old, all beer came in wooden barrels, very few of todays real ales can match up to them. Another vital part of the brew is the water, this has to come from underground sources and the mineral content is vital. Ind Coope had two breweries, one at Romford and the other at Burton on Trent. A long goods train of many tanker trucks filled up at Romford with the spring water and took it all of the way to Burton where it was discharged and the train filled with Burton water to be taken back to Romford. These waters were the secret of the beers. This train was running non-stop all of the time.

  8. cityjane permalink
    June 20, 2013

    Yeast with an afterlife! Yay! Resurrection! Not too many sips Jack Hibberd! Can’t wait to try it.

  9. June 22, 2013

    When I have the time and enthusiasm I make sourdough bread, and the process of developing a yeast is a fascinating one. It’s amazing how the same basic ingredients – flour and water – can vary the end product so much, not only according to the type of flour, which isn’t so surprising, but the water and even the air in which the yeasts develop, No wonder it’s all so important to Trumans.

  10. Peter Holford permalink
    June 25, 2013

    Can’t wait to sample it! My uncle ran a series of Truman’s pubs across London from the 1940s to the 1970s. As a kid I used to go down to the cellar with him where he would heave the wooden barrels around, tap them, pour beer through filter paper and so on. The smell was magical. By the time I managed a pub for him in the 1970s it was all fizzy keg and tasted awful – I had missed out. I drank Young’s instead!

  11. Derek Bradshaw permalink
    September 13, 2013

    Two points to Greg’s posting on beer and keg sizes –
    Barrels – the 9 gallon size is called a Firkin, with a Pin being half that size.
    Kegs – Trumans went for two sizes of Kegs, at the time of metrication, – 50 litres, which is the equivalent of 11 imperial gallons, and 100 litres, which is the quivalent of 22 imperial gallons.
    I agree with Greg’s comment ‘usually containing something that no civilised person would wish to allow anywhere near their lips’ but in those days not all landlords could look after their beer properly and draft and filtered beer was a way of the brewery doing the job for them.

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