Coming Soon: 170-year-old shipwreck beer

We started following this story a few months back. In 2010, archaeologists discovered a mid-19th-century shipwreck off the archipelago of Åland in Finland laden with unopened beer and champaign bottles. The local government commissioned a firm to:

to study the composition of the shipwreck beer and identify the type of yeast used to brew it. The aim of the project was to study what early 19th-century beer was like and whether its production process could be reverse-engineered and the beer replicated. The study involved an analysis of the physico-chemical properties of the beer and microbiological and DNA analyses of the beer, bottle and cork. In particular, the aim was to isolate any living microbes. 

They came up empty on the first attempt, but yesterday researchers for VTT announced their discovery of four live bacteria species. According to this press release:

Both bottles contained beautiful pale golden liquids, identified as beer by the presence of malt sugars, aromatic compounds and hops typical of the beverage. Chemical analyses showed that the beer could originally have featured hints of rose, almond and cloves. However, the beers in the bottles examined had not stood the test of time well.

The pale golden colour indicates that the beers were made from unroasted malt. The burned flavour suggests that heating at the mashing stage was not under control. It is possible, though, that a smoky flavour in beer was appreciated at the time. The beers were probably made from grain – barley or wheat or a combination of the two. Hops, of a variety typical of a couple of centuries ago, had been added before boiling the wort.

Four different species of live lactic acid bacteria were isolated from the beer. Pediococcus damnosus, Lactobacillus malefermentans and “Lactobacillus backii” are highly adapted to growing in beer and in association with brewing yeast. The fourth one, Lactobacillus kisonensis was first discovered only a few years ago from a traditional fermented vegetable product in Japan. Some of the bacteria were capable of producing viscous sugar polymers tentatively identified as beta-glucan. This sugar polymer can protect bacterial cells against various environmental stresses and may have contributed to the longevity of the bacteria in the beers.

Dead yeast cells were discovered in the beer. Some of them appeared to be Saccharomyces cerevisiae or brewer’s yeast, while others resembled Dekkera yeast characteristic of lambic beer. No living yeast cells were found, but trace amount of yeast DNA could be detected from one of the bottles.

Apparently, “scientific research” will continue. I’m looking forward to tasting this 1840s brew. No word on how long we’ll have to wait.

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Filed under Announcement, Notes from the Field, Shipwreck culture, Shipwreck Kitsch

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