How a Centuries-Old Beer Came Back to Life

© Catalyst

By Gillie Houston Posted June 15, 2016

Australian scientists revived a brew discovered in an 18th-century shipwreck.

It should come as no surprise that after sitting underwater for 220 years, beer isn't really drinkable. But it can, we now know, be revived.

In 1797, a commercial trading ship ran aground on a tiny island in the Bass Strait of Australia, leaving much of its cargo behind under layers of sand at the foot of the ocean. A 1990 expedition salvaged some of this cargo, including cases of beer that were miraculously preserved due to way they were buried. The sand "virtually sealed everything in, there was no oxygen getting in," says marine archaeologist Mike Nash, who discovered the vintage booze.

The salvaged materials were sent to the Queen Victoria museum to be put on display, but the bottles were relegated to the museum's storage area. They sat in the shadows for years until chemist and museum conservator David Thurrowgood happened upon them and noticed that they still contained a bit of liquid.

Thurrowgood had an idea: should he be able to recover the right ingredients from the bottle, he could bring a piece of history back to life. "That gave us a chance to possibly have access to the oldest beer in the world," he tells the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. "I thought we might be able to culture that yeast and recreate beer that hasn't been on the planet for 220 years."

Thurrowgood began to contract scientists about the possibility of reviving the brew, but was met with unanimous skepticism. Many beer experts believe that yeasts don't survive longer than a decade—much less 22 decades. "I didn't think there was any chance it was ever going to work," says Anthony Borneman, the Australian Wine Resaerch Institute yeast specialist. However, curiosity got the best of Borneman and he got to work carefully extracting the liquid from the bottles and testing the vitality of the yeast. To his surprise, the yeast of two samples came alive. There was Brettanomyces—an old-style brewer's yeast—along with an unusual strain of the typical modern brewer's yeast, Saccharomyces.

There's some debate over whether this is really a 220-year-old yeast (one scientist argues that it could be the result of contamination), but Borneman and Thurrowgood think they've got the real deal. In any case, the stuff works: Thurrowgood created a homebrewed English ale using the yeast.

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