Conservators at the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery in Launceston, Tasmania, Australia’s largest regional museum, have used samples of what is believed to be the world’s oldest surviving beer to create a modern brew from 18th century microorganisms.
The bottles were discovered in the shipwreck of the Sydney Cove, a small merchant vessel carrying alcohol, food, textiles and livestock from Calcutta to Port Jackson (modern-day Sydney) in 1797. On February 9th, the ship was caught in a storm and began to take on water. The captain decided to deliberately ground the Sydney Cove on the shore of Preservation Island, Tasmania. The full crew survived and after stashing all the cargo they could salvage, 17 of them set out for Port Jackson in the ship’s longboat, becoming the first Europeans to cross the Bass Strait between Tasmania and mainland Australia. Their bad luck held, however, and they got into another wreck off Ninety Mile Beach, Victoria, a full 400 miles from their destination. They had to walk the coast all that way to finally reach Port Jackson. By the time they got there in May, only three of the 17 were still alive.
The eighth oldest shipwreck in Australian waters, the Sydney Cove was rediscovered in 1977 and excavated by marine archaeologists from the Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service from 1991 to 1994. They recovered 26 glass bottles of beer from the ship’s hold, as well as bottles of wine, brandy and gin. The artifacts were sent to the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery where two samples were drawn from one of the beer bottles and kept in storage.
Museum conservator David Thurrowgood found a forgotten sealed bottle of beer from the shipwreck two years ago. As a chemist, he was intrigued at the prospect of investigating microorganisms that might still be living in the beer. He extracted a sample with a syringe but found no critters alive. The two samples drawn in the 1990s, on the other hand, were more productive. Thurrowgood and a team of experts from Australia, France, Germany and Belgium were able to revive five strains of yeast from the samples, and several different species of bacteria.
DNA testing of the yeast strains found they are related to yeast found in beers brewed in Trappist monasteries. Researchers also plan to analyse the DNA of the other microbes discovered in the samples to discover more about pre-Industrial diets.
“People talk about autoimmune diseases and other issues [relating to] the fact that we have quite a clean diet today, whereas in the past we had a diet full of microbes,” Thurrowgood said. “This is one of the few chances we’ve got to actually test those microbes, and actually see what they were.”
Meanwhile, one of the yeast cultures drawn from the Sydney Cove beer has been used to create a new batch named Preservation Ale after the island where the ship ran ground. They used an English beer recipe from the late 18th century to recreate a brew as close as possible to the original.
The researchers also uncovered a historical account of a celebrated English beer from the time that was known for its sweet, cider-like flavor, similar to the beer brewed from the reanimated yeast.
“That was quite a surprise, but having found that reference, and to have that particular taste come out in the beer … it showed that the beer did actually have a distinctive taste at the time that we’re only rediscovering now,” Thurrowgood told Live Science.
Only a few bottles have been brewed for research purposes, so for now there’s no chance of the public getting a sip of this cider-like beer. Several companies have expressed interest in making a brew for wider public consumption, however. Meanwhile, researchers plan to study the wine and other alcohol found on the shipwreck. They will examine the red wine to compare it to modern red wine and to study any microorganisms within.