The Beer That Takes You Back . . . Millions of Years

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By Gabe Oppenheim
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 1, 2008

Raul Cano is the real-life "Jurassic Park" scientist. Yes, there is one.

A day before that movie opened in 1993, Cano announced that he had extracted DNA from an ancient Lebanese weevil entombed in amber, just as the fictional employees of InGen do with a mosquito to create their dino-amusement park. One newspaper account said the "achievement" refuted "the long-held view of many biologists that DNA of so great an age" couldn't be preserved.

But Cano was less interested in extinct reptiles than in Homo sapiens now roaming the earth. He next revivified ancient bacteria from the gut of an amber-encased bee and hoped to turn the strains into new antibiotics. That didn't work, and Cano, who has a doctorate in medical mycology, put his 1,200-specimen organism collection on the back shelf and returned to more fruitful microbial endeavors, like assessment of petroleum-degrading diversity in sand dunes and the bioinformatics of Lactobacillus acidophilus.

And then, last month, a breakthrough.

The product?

Beer.

"I was going through my collection, going, 'Gee whiz -- this is pretty nifty. Maybe we could use it to make beer,' " says Cano, 63 , now the director of the Environmental Biotechnology Institute at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo.

The result is Fossil Fuels Brewing Co., which ferments a yeast strain Cano found in a piece of Burmese amber dating from about 25 million to 45 million years ago. The company -- in which Cano is a partner, along with another scientist and a lawyer -- introduced its pale ale and German wheat beer with a party last month at one of the two Bay Area pubs where Fossil Fuels is made and served.

In April, at the World Beer Cup in San Diego, "we had one judge give us the highest marks, one just below and one who didn't like it," says Chip Lambert, 63, the company's other second microbiologist. "We learned that the issue was that in these competitions, you brew to match the traditional concept of the style, which these yeast just don't do."

William Brand, the Oakland Tribune beer critic, says the ancient yeast provides the wheat beer with a distinctively "clove-y" taste and a "weird spiciness at the finish." (The Washington Post Style section's summer beer critic pronounced it "smooth and spicy, excellent with chicken strips.")

Of the science behind the suds, Cano says, "It's just like the Rip Van Winkle effect. What they are doing, they are remaining dormant -- the bacteria or the yeast and generally spores of some sort -- and then when you take them out of the amber, they reawaken and continue to reproduce. So they are alive."

You ask, of course, why men able to imbue life would do so ultimately for booze. And Cano drifts back to his childhood in Havana, to the thick air before the revolution. "My dad used to drink," he recalls, a lilt in his voice. "I remember when I was 10, 12 years old, I used to walk over to where he had a mini glass of beer and talk him out of 10 cents, so I could go to a movie and have a hamburger."


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