Food & Drink

Inside the brewhouse: The rise of Wimbledon Brewery

Now approaching his 50th year in professional brewing, Derek Prentice is a man who loves what he does.

With a boxer’s handshake and an engineer’s mind, daytime TV and dotage are not on the retirement agenda for the 68-year-old.

Derek’s long career has included years at large brewers including Trumans, Fullers, Youngs, before retirement, consultancy and his current home at Wimbledon Brewery.

Recruited by brewery founder Mark Gordon in 2015 at their local rugby club, he was coaxed out of retirement to contribute to the fledgling company.

Derek now works part-time, passing the baton to a new generation of brewers. Touring the 30-barrel brewhouse, he remains modest about his contribution.

He said: “My aim working with Mark was to develop and encourage a team that would take the brewery forward. All the new beers now come from them, springing out of their ideas and their trial brews. I only give a little bit of guidance.”

Over a sunlit table in the car park, the brew team share out tupperware containers of home-cooked food for lunch. Each dish is appraised as debate flies over the best way to slice bread for dipping.

Charlie Long is the head brewer and leader of the tight-knit team of millennials who form the brewery’s backbone. Daily life is a mix of the physical (hauling barley bags, cleaning cavernous tankers) and the scientific (measuring, processes, reactions).

Most have engineering backgrounds and are training to complete formal brewing qualifications, in a constant upskilling process. Derek takes a back seat, happy to let the team banter and blow off steam.

His son Michael, a recent addition from Fourpure brewery, sits opposite. Derek kept his love of brewing in the family, with three of his sons following his lead.

He said: “I’ve really enjoyed companies that have been family concerns, as they had a real passion for the brewery. Youngs and Fullers were very family-influenced, so I hope Mark’s children will want to continue the work at Wimbledon Brewery.

“I’m not looking for fame and riches, but I’m hoping to leave this as a working legacy.”

The brewery is unusually quiet today. A Spotify playlist echoes around the high ceilings, the towering machines idle. Daily brewing has stopped for an annual boiler service, but the team remain busy, continually cleaning and planning. One of Derek’s many innovations, the boiler was a unique addition for an operation of this size.

It allows the brewery much greater consistency and heat control than their counterparts. The brewery strives for craft quality, but wants a wider appeal than most small brewers.

Mark, the brewery’s hirsute and easy-going founder, explained his initial challenge.

He said: “I took myself on a brewing course, and realised 10 minutes in I wasn’t going to be brewing myself. I assumed it’d be like cooking – I can barbeque, so I can brew beer. But it went straight into microbiology and chemistry, and I quickly realised I needed someone like Derek to help.”

Since the mid-2000’s, the craft beer industry has made an increasingly large dent in the profit margins of bigger chains. Budweiser’s market share has dropped to 6% domestically, a trend reflected worldwide.

David Bateman, managing director of Wimbledon Brewery, sits in a boardroom piled high with merchandise, beer cases, and paraphernalia. A former CFO at Paperchase, his sensible business shirt is fringed with floral patterns on the collar as he passionately states his case.

He said: “You have the trustworthy nature of the big brands, but they’re just a bit dull, and a bit mass-produced.

“I think alongside this idea of shopping local, and acting local, and buying into your local community – to have something that’s been brewed within a few miles of your home is really exciting.”

Nowadays, your neighbourhood pub is likely to stock a few local breweries, not just the perennial Fosters, Carling, and Stella. For everyone from fixed-wheel hipsters to greying ale drinkers, the range of flavours and choice has exploded.

From their formation, Wimbledon Brewery have always been keen to avoid the over-hopped, ‘fad’ flavours of many small brewers. Instead, they focus on traditional tastes with distinct flavour – what Mark calls ‘the right side of interesting’.

Derek’s desert island drink is Young’s Ordinary Bitter, a more traditional taste he tries to emulate with his own Wimbledon Common.

No business can afford to ignore consumer demand, and so Wimbledon Brewery are developing a variety of pale ales, with their first expected to be launched in June.

The brewery’s most recent experiment is the elderflower-infused Wimbledon Ale (4%), which has secured them their first nationwide distribution deal. It is on sale now in 600 Marks and Spencer Food stores, priced at £2 per can.

They also plan to expand their facilities, start a canning line, and expand internationally. David is confident Wimbledon’s international recognition will be an asset, and Mark has similarly high hopes.

He added: “There isn’t a British national beer that’s synonymous with England worldwide. Peroni is Italy, Budweiser is America, Asahi is Japan. It’d be nice to think we could do something about that.”

As for Derek, he will continue to train the team and celebrate his 50th year of brewing in style.

Leaning across a chrome rail and reflecting on his future, he said: “I don’t particularly want to give up yet, I still feel reasonably agile. While I’m of use, I’ll stick around. They’ll probably tell me to bugger off fairly soon anyway!”

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