Spending close to 200 years at the bottom of the ocean is hardly the ideal recipe for an award-winning beer; this beverage generally does not improve with age, let alone when exposed to seawater. But while the brews recovered from an 1840s shipwreck may now smell like stinky cheese and taste like goat, an analysis of the compounds inside the vintage beers revealed that they had a similar composition to modern day lagers and ales and therefore probably didn’t taste that dissimilar to today’s suds.
Although slightly older beer has been discovered previously, according to the authors of the study, this is the first time that chemical analyses have been performed on beer this old. Their findings have been published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.
Back in 2010, a shipwreck was discovered at the bottom of the Baltic Sea close to a vast archipelago belonging to Finland known as the Åland Islands. Although the exact age of the sailing vessel is unknown, several lines of archeological evidence suggest the ship is from the second quarter of the 19th century.
Aboard the ship were 168 bottles of champagne, which were later found to be a combination of Veuve Clicquot and Juglar. Many were broken and contaminated but a few managed to survive and, remarkably, still tasted “pretty good” thanks to being laid horizontally at a low temperature and in the dark. Unfortunately, the same could not be said for the five bottles of beer that were also found on the wreck.
When divers tried to take the beers back to land, one of the bottles broke and a frothy liquid began to exude from the cracks. It’s not every day that you are presented with the opportunity to taste 170-year-old beer, so one of the divers decided to give this one a swig and, apparently, it still retained a beery taste.
The bottles were then whisked off to the Technical Research Center of Finland where a team of researchers decided to analyze the chemical composition of two of them. Although they still retained the aesthetics of beer with a bright golden yellow coloration and little haze, they certainly didn’t smell like it. Both of them smelt like a tempting combination of Bakelite—an early synthetic plastic renowned for its fishy smell—burnt rubber, overly-ripe cheese, goat and dimethyl sulfide, which is commonly likened to rotting cabbage. These undesirable notes are likely attributable to the growth of bacteria inside the bottles, which would have produced a lot of organic acids.
So it smelt rank—but how did it taste? Apparently, the overwhelming taste of vinegar, goat (again) and soured milk masked any fruitiness or maltiness. Although it’s impossible to know the precise original taste, their chemical compositions gave some hints. For example, both were made with hops, but one contained more and was thus more bitter. Both beers had high levels of a compound that gives an apple flavor, and the less bitter beer was particularly high in compounds that bestow rose and sweet apple flavors. Interestingly, they had unusually low concentrations of one of the major flavor components of fermented alcoholic beverages, 3-Methylbuty acetate, which give banana or pear drops flavor. Overall, they probably would have been pretty similar in taste to modern day beers, the researchers concluded.