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At The Truman Brewery, 1931

June 25, 2020
by the gentle author

Tomorrow is the formal closing date for submitting your comments on the Truman Brewery redevelopment plans for a shopping mall and corporate offices. Click here for more information

There is a curious drama in the presence of the two brewers in overalls in this picture of the Truman Brewery in Brick Lane, looking like ants by comparison with the tall coppers towering above, each with the capacity for boiling four hundred barrels of liquid. Can you even find the second brewer, high on a gantry up above his colleague busy stirring with a long pole?

This is an illustration of the crucial stage in the brewing process when the hops are added to the boiling “wort,” as the malt infused liquor is called before it becomes beer. Yet in spite of the awe-inspiring modernity of this vision, you can still see the smallest of the coppers in the top left corner within the shell of the seventeenth century brewhouse, itself enclosed by the vast brewery that grew up around it.

The contrast between the heroic scale of the brewing operation and the figures of cloth-capped workmen looks absurd today. The industrialisation of the process which this sequence of pictures celebrate is unremarkable to us, it is the presence of the wooden barrels and use of horsepower that we find exotic. This is a quaint English modernity which has more in common with W. Heath Robinson than Fritz Lang. The agricultural illustrations of the cultivation of barley show a haywain reminiscent of John Constable’s work and stooks of corn upon the hillside as you would see in a landscape by Samuel Palmer.

These intriguing pictures were created as a supplement to The Black Eagle Magazine, published by Truman Hanbury & Buxton in 1931, and grant a rare glimpse into the working life of the brewery that flourished here for over three hundred years.

Yet, although these pictures were designed to elucidate the brewing process, in fact they merely serve to romance the alchemical mystery even further. The text of the accompanying brochure contains some elegant obfuscation too.

“Living things have ever an individuality of their own which defies mere rule of thumb government. Brewing is not merely an elaborate process of manufacture, but it includes in it the application of man’s brain power as scientist and technician, to guide the processes of nature, and to help understand something of life’s basic but baffling problems: food, health and clean surroundings.”

These artists’ impressions seem to imply that the brewery contained another reality, stranger the outer world and containing magical possibilities. A notion enforced by references to the use of a Jacob’s Ladder, Archimidean Screw and Dust Destroying Plant, while the language of “sparging” the “wort” evokes a universe as bizarre as anything Tolkien imagined.

Yet it was all real, a discrete society with its own arcane language and culture that evolved during three centuries in Brick Lane until it modernised itself out of existence. What touches me in these curious pictures are the small human figures – often hidden or partially concealed in the background – and the few artefacts on their scale, the sinks, buckets, barrels and jugs, which appear miniature beside the industrial scale brewing equipment.

A mixture of machinery and horsepower was used in the production of barley in 1931

East Enders travelled down to Kent each year to work as hop pickers

Barley arrived at the maltings, where it was hauled up to the top storey, spread out onto the floor and covered with water, turned daily for ten to twelve days, and thinned out when it began to germinate. Then the barley was transferred to the malt kiln and heated until it reached two hundred degrees farenheit. The malt, as it now was, came from the kiln and was cooled before being stored.

On the right you can see the malt is being delivered at the brewery in Brick Lane, then elevated to the Malt Loft by means of a Jacob’s Ladder, which you can see top left, and distributed by means of a screw to malt bins with a capacity of 12,000 quarters. At the bottom, you can see the malt being transferred from the bins for the day’s brewing by means of an Archimedean Screw. The movement of the malt caused dust to rise and thus a connection with a large dust destroying plant was required.

The malt was received from the malt bins in the malt tower and weighing room at the top of this picture, before being passed through the malt screens on the floor below to remove any foreign matter. Then the malt was weighed again before going into the hoppers beneath, from whence it was again lifted by suction to the tower in the new brewery.

This is the malt tower, from where the malt was distributed down through various blending hoppers and then ground in the malt mills below.

In the top picture, the malt passes to the grist cases ready for the mash tun. In the next picture you see the mash tun stage. On entering the mash tun, the malt was mixed with liquor, allowed to stand and then “sparged” at a rate of one hundred and twenty barrels per hour to create a substance resembling porridge. The resulting liquid, referred to as “wort” was run off into the receivers you can see bottom left, labelled ale and stout, while on the right you can see the used malt being removed by farmers. The wort was then boiled in the coppers, that you see in the picture at the very top, where the hops was added.

In these pictures you see how the wort was pumped from the coppers through the refrigerator room at the top and then into the fermenting squares on the floors below where the yeast was added and fermentation took place. Finally, the yeast was collected in the vessel in the top right and the beer was run to the racking square and put into casks.

Above, in descending order, you see the bottle washing floor, the bottle filling floor, the loading-out stage and then the barrels in the cellars ready for loading.

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8 Responses leave one →
  1. June 25, 2020

    What a fabulous post, thank you for all the wonderful pictures and descriptions of the process. I remember as a young girl going to school along Bath Row Birmingham stopping to watch the bottles rotating round on some sort of platform being washed. This was at Davenports where the slogan used to be “Beer at home means Davenports” Ah memories !

  2. June 25, 2020

    Interesting to think that ‘gravity feed’ was always the case. It still is at Hook Norton [Hooky], where a steam engine pumps/lifts everything to the top floor and then it’s gravity all the way. We waste so much energy these days …

  3. paul loften permalink
    June 25, 2020

    Ideal weather for a cold beer today ! but not a pub in sight. The likelihood grows with the daily news reports, that the only glass you’ll see in Spitalfields is a glass and concrete box-like structures

  4. John C. Miles permalink
    June 25, 2020

    Thank you GA for a fascinating post! I learned from ‘The Repair Shop’ last week that there is only one Master Cooper left in the UK. How sad – once all kinds of things were packed in wooden barrels and surely this would be a more environmentally-friendly alternative to all the metal and plastics used now.

  5. Jill Wilson permalink
    June 25, 2020

    These are really interesting to me as my grandfather was head brewer at the Westerham Brewery – also called the Black Eagle Brewery. I wonder why that name was popular, or if there was any direct connection?

    Spookily enough he would have started there at just about the time that these photos were taken but his brewery was nothing like the scale of the Truman Brewery. However it did seem enormous to me as a child, and I remember walking around above a massive container – a ‘wort’ perhaps – where there was no safety rail, and the sickly sweet smell of the malt brewing.

    But what we really loved was the brewery cat – a very old tabby called Tatty…

  6. Robin permalink
    June 25, 2020

    Objection sent! Thank you, GA, for organizing community resistance to senseless corporatisation of our urban space.

  7. Lesley Spencer permalink
    January 1, 2021

    I believe my Grandad (Joseph Spencer) and his two brothers worked as Drayman, Cooper and electrician. Would love it if their were some photos. Lxx I would recognise my grandad.

  8. April 1, 2021

    Great article and photos. I am trying to find images of the interior of The Jolly Butchers at the moment, post 1885 if possible. I study tiles made by Carter and Co of Poole and recently found a newspaper report dated 1885 about a tile panel showing Bartlemy Fair that they painted for the pub. Too much to hope that it still exists under panelling in the property but if I could find any records that would be fantastic.

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