Yeast microbes from the world’s oldest bottle of beer — a 220-year-old container found in one of Australia’s earliest shipwrecks — are being used to create a new, modern beer with the characteristic taste of the 18th-century brew.
The yeast was grown from the contents of a bottle of beer recovered from the wreck of the Sydney Cove, a British trading ship that got caught in a storm near the island of Tasmania, off Australia’s south coast, in 1797 while on its way from India to the prison colony at Port Jackson, now the city of Sydney.
The crew of the Sydney Cove survived by grounding the sinking ship on a tiny island off northern Tasmania, now called Preservation Island. (That’s part of the inspiration for the name of the re-created beer: Preservation Ale.)
The researchers used the yeast to brew a mild-tasting beer using a traditional recipe from the time, and they say it has a distinct flavor.
“It’s got quite a sweet taste — some people have described it as almost a cider or fresh taste — which has come from the yeast,” said project leader David Thurrowgood, a conservator and chemist at the Queen Victoria Museum at Launceston in Tasmania.
But aficionados will have to wait a while longer to sample the 220-year-old taste: Thurrowgood said several brewing companies are keen to market Preservation Ale, but so far the entire stock consists of a few bottles brewed for his research.
The yeast microbes used for the re-created beer were grown from samples taken from one of 26 bottles found in the hold of the Sydney Cove wreck during excavations by marine archaeologists in the 1990s.
A single unopened bottle from the wreck now enjoys pride of place at the Queen Victoria Museum as the world’s oldest bottle of beer — the nearest contender being a 133-year-old bottle of lager in the Carlsberg Museum in Denmark, Thurrowgood said.
DNA tests show the shipwrecked yeast microbes are related to yeast species used in what are called Trappist ales brewed in monasteries in Europe, and Thurrowgood thinks the bottles contained a premium beer exported from England for military officers at Port Jackson.
The scientists from Australia, Belgium, France and Germany have revived five distinct species of yeast microbes from the opened bottle, along with several species of bacteria. These survivors of the shipwreck will provide rare information about the microorganisms in human diets from a time before the Industrial Revolution in Europe.