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BEER: Truman’s reborn

“standfirst”>Truman’s beer has risen like a phoenix in the East End of London, reports Patrick Schmitt.

trumans.jpgFor those who have visited the East End’s bastion of Indian dining, Brick Lane, you may have noticed something haunting the streets of Shoreditch, that is other than Jack the Ripper.

It’s the ghost of Truman’s beer, a brand once deeply embedded in this diverse community, but killed off at the end of the ’80s. It’s still visible on the Victorian brickwork, stained glass and panelling of back street boozers, and its former Brick Lane brewery, now offices and event spaces, has retained its branded chimney, a beautiful beacon above the curry houses.

In fact, so prominent are the architectural remnants of Truman’s in this corner of the capital that, some believe, similar to Elvis, it never died.

Today they would be right – well almost – because it’s been brought back to life. Without making any loud pronouncements, two east London residents and entrepreneurial beer enthusiasts, James Morgan and Michael-George Hemus, have spent the last few years trying to revive it, and eventually gained the rights to the dormant label with its distinctive black eagle branding in January last year.

“Established 1666; closed 1989; re-established 2010” states newly-printed beer mats for the brand, partly because, as Morgan acknowledges, such is the lasting imprint of this label that some long-standing Shoreditch pub-goers think production never ceased.

He explains with a pleasing example. “There was an old boy in the pub, a regular, and when he saw the new Truman’s tap badge, he said: ‘I haven’t had Truman’s for a while,’ so I asked him when his last pint of Truman’s was. ‘Around six months ago,’ he replied.”

In fact, the brand had not been poured for over 20 years, but it’s highly likely his last sip of Truman’s was a lot earlier: its decline had begun in 1971 when the independent Truman’s succumbed to an aggressive bid, precipitating the gradual sale of its breweries and pubs.

Even such a long-time loyal Truman’s drinker wouldn’t, however, have experienced the beer’s peak period – which was the late 1800s, when Shoreditch was home to a mass of brewers. During this time, “East London was the capital of brewing in the world and Truman’s was the biggest brewer,” records Morgan, adding: “It is part of east London heritage and the breweries then weren’t just beer factories – they represented something.”

Currently Morgan believes as many as 120 pubs in London still have “Truman livery” and Hemus and Morgan report a widespread residual affection among those who remember drinking it, but also a renaissance in this part of the city due to the influx of new residents. “There is a younger, more enthusiastic crowd moving in who are interested in locally sourced products.”

Bringing the beer brand back to life was, however, a lengthy and painstaking process. There had been so many mergers and acquisitions since Truman’s had closed that it was, Morgan says, extremely difficult just finding out who owned the brand.

Having eventually discovered it was Scottish & Newcastle, the two, who were both working full-time, approached the group. “The initial response was: ‘Who are you? And we are not interested’.”

trumans2.jpgFurther phoning saw them passed onto S&N’s external lawyers whom, Hemus recalls: “We called once a week for six months, until they put us onto the internal lawyers, whom we called twice a week for three months.” Such was the pair’s persistence that S&N eventually agreed to release the brand but, as Hemus points out: “It was amazing no-one in the innovation department thought, if these guys are really this interested then maybe there’s something here.”

The story did not end there. “The agreement was essentially on the table,” continues Hemus, “but then S&N got bought by Heineken and there was another hiatus. As we were dealing with the same people, it just delayed the sale by six months.”

Then came the research. “We had to learn about the history of Truman’s properly and we went to the London Metropolitan Archives where the paperwork was.” Apparently, every recipe of each beer brewed by Truman’s from the 1830s and 1920s is recorded, but “no-one knows where the records are from the ’50s and ’60s. Allegedly they were burnt”.

Nevertheless, Morgan and Hemus were able to analyse the constituents of Truman’s first ever India Pale Ale, or brews destined for those fighting the Crimean War and, importantly, the recipe for a London Porter because Truman had invented the style.

Next, however, they needed someone to make the modern Truman’s, and enlisted the help of friend and respected brewer Tom Knox from the Nethergate Brewery in Essex. Although they had enough information about the ingredients of the former Truman’s beers, they decided not to recreate an old brew, but a new one inspired by what they’d learnt. This was both for practical reasons and the evolution of tastes since the ’50s.

What they haven’t done, however, is attempt to make a fashionable lighter coloured ale, but have gone for a redder, darker beer in keeping with the traditional London ale. “We have got a great brewing tradition in this country and it’s worth championing,” says Morgan. As for the name, it’s been called Truman’s Runner.

The launch is “going well”, he adds, and the beer can now be found in around 40 London pubs, serving approximately 7,200 pints, although he’s hoping that this will double in the next three months. “When put alongside major London ale brands it outsells them,” he records, perhaps helped by the high quality point of sale they have developed, including eagle-branded ceramic handmade tap labels and eagle-etched glassware.

Truman’s has also launched a bottled beer designed for the off-trade and those bars without cellars in east London, as well as a London Porter called “Three Threads”. The brand is also switching to the “Summer Runner” brew for the change of season. This won’t be offered alongside the standard Runner as Truman’s is switching the entire production. “The idea is to alternate between Summer Runner and Runner, and hopefully drinkers will go on a journey with us.”

Looking ahead, Hemus and Morgan concede that there is a further step required to create a truly credible east London beer, and that is a brewery in the area. This they hope to start building in January 2013 when they plan to construct a brewery on the Olympic site once the games have finished – and Morgan says that they have got through the first round of applications with the Olympic Park Legacy Committee. “We are looking at a decent size,” he says, “either the second or third biggest London brewery.”

And let’s hope it goes ahead, not just because this is an exciting story of a beer brand revival, but also a tale of an East End renaissance which is not driven by the urban planners, but gently fanned by the celebration of a community’s heritage, and centred on that most powerful of social forces – the local pub.

Patrick Schmitt, May 2011

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