'Light and fresh': World's oldest beer brewed from shipwreck bottle
What does the world's oldest-known beer recipe taste like?
It's actually surprisingly "light and fresh," according to researchers at the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery in Australia.
The museum announced this week that it has recovered live yeast from a 220-year-old bottle of beer, making it possibly the oldest surviving yeast in existence. The bottle is thought to be a sort of chemical time capsule, capable of offering researchers a taste of the way people used to drink.
"The yeast is an unusual three-way hybrid with links to bakers, brewers and wine yeast," museum conservator David Thurrowgood said in a news release. "It is genetically different to hundreds of yeast species it has been compared to from Australia and around the world."
Researchers used an 18th-century recipe and live yeast cultured from the recovered bottles to create a batch of their own beer, which they called Preservation Ale. The museum analyzed and cultured the yeast with the help of the Australian Wine Research Institute and the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA.
It’s the first time brewing yeast of this age has been observed in a live condition, the museum says.
Yeast is an essential ingredient for brewing beer, and the choice of yeast can have a significant impact on the colour and flavour of the final product. Yeast are essentially tiny organisms that consume sugar and output alcohol during the brewing process, and some yeast can remain in the beer after brewing in either a living, dead or suspended state. Modern pasteurization processes kill off the yeast, but older beers – like, say, a brew from the late 18th century – were made without this sanitary measure.
The museum says it's now seeking funding to study the yeast further, and to explore the possibility of re-creating other historic brews. "Possibly the wreck has now also given us the world's only known pre-industrial revolution brewing yeast," Thurrowgood said.
The bottle was recovered from the wreck of the Sydney Cove, a small trading ship that sank off the coast of Australia in 1797, with a cargo hold full of goods from Calcutta. Divers excavated the shipwreck from 1991-1994, and recovered the bottle of beer along with many other well-preserved trade goods, including tobacco, ink, textiles, wine and spirits. The museum says the shipwreck is well-known for its "range of preserved fragile organic materials," which rarely survive in other centuries-old wrecks.
The red wine recovered from the wreck could also offer insight into what micro-organisms were present in people's diets 220 years ago, according to the release.