Brewers Use Yeast Found On Shipwreck To Bring 220-Year-Old Beer Back To Life

Mike Nash, Parks and Wildlife/Queen Victoria Museum & Art Gallery/James Squire

A team of brewers is working on a project to recreate the world's oldest beer, discovered over 20 years ago onboard a shipwrecked vessel off the coast the Preservation Islands, in southeastern Australia.

The beer, appropriately named The Wreck – Preservation Ale, will go on sale for a limited time only in June.

The Sydney Cove left Calcutta, India, in 1796 for a fledgling penal colony in Sydney, Australia – but before it could reach its final destination, the ship sank. 

It was not discovered until 200 years later when a team of amateur divers stumbled upon the long lost wreck. In the early '90s, a marine archaeologist called Mike Nash led an intense effort to salvage the remains.

Among the leather shoes, anchors, and canons, the team landed upon 31,500-liters-worth of old-timey booze. Tightly sealed glass bottles and icy waters had kept the alcohol surprisingly well-preserved. Today, it is still the world's oldest surviving bottled alcohol. 

The alcohol was analyzed at the time, revealing traces of grapes, port wine, and beer. Now, 20 years later, brewers are hoping to bring some of this old beer back to life using some of the yeast found on the ship.

“I thought we might be able to culture yeast and recreate a beer that hasn’t been on the planet for 220 years," David Thurrowgood, museum conservator and chemist, said in a statement

The project is being done in collaboration with the Queen Victoria Museum & Art Gallery, the Australian Wine Research Institute, and Australia’s oldest brewery, James Squire, which was named after its founder – a first fleet convict who became the very first person to successfully cultivate hops in Australia.

To resurrect this 18th-century beverage, the team re-examined the contents of the bottles and isolated the yeast. Analysis of the genetic make-up revealed that it was a rare hybrid strain worlds away from the types used to make modern beer.

Then, it was taken to a laboratory and brewers began concocting drinks that could be commercially viable. The process involved a lot of trial and error. As brewer Stu Korch pointed out, "taming" the historic yeast was no mean feat.

“Particular care has been taken to extract and grow this yeast into a brew that enhances its unique characteristics,” he explained.

So, what can we expect this historic drink to taste like? Apparently, "dark, malty, spicy & stormy". The Wreck is a porter-style beer, inspired by the porters, small ales and IPAs found on the ship, and contains hints of blackcurrant and spices. 

But be warned all those tempted to try the old-timey brew: "Because it’s such an old salt, there’ll be a dash of phenolics, and a splash of funk." Mmm, tasty.

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