The words ‘sunken treasure’ may bring gold coins or gem-filled chests to mind, but divers are finding a different type of treasure underwater…shipwreck beer. And while you might not want to chug from a bottle that’s been sitting on the bottom of the ocean for a century, what’s inside them is recapturing the tastes of beers long gone, helping to create the flavors of the future.
The cargo steamer Wallachia sunk off the coast of Scotland in 1895. It wasn’t until 1977 that scuba divers rediscovered the ship and its cargo that included, among other supplies, whiskey and beer. Most of the whiskey was removed from the ship’s holds in the 1980s, but thousands of bottles of beer remained. Steve Hickman, who’s been diving on the Wallachia since the 1980s, says there’s a good reason the beer was left behind. Hickman said when he opened bottles, the beer poured with a thick, creamy head, almost like a Guinness. But the taste? That was something else.
“It had the most atrocious smell,” says Hickman told the BBC. “A sort of salty, putrefied smell. I think that would be the best description.”
The beer was undrinkable, smelly, and its glass bottles had a nasty tendency to explode. But, it also possessed a very important characteristic: living yeast. In the case of the Wallachia, the yeast was still active 126 years after the ship sank. Along with grain and hops, yeast provides much of the flavor you find in beer.
In 2018, Andy Pilley, a diver for Global Underwater Explorers (GUE) Scotland, reached out to Brewlab, a research company specializing in brewing and testing. Pilley asked if they would be interested in analyzing the beer and maybe even recreating it. The opportunity to examine a beer that hadn’t seen the surface for more than 100 years was an irrefusable proposition.
Beer from the bottom of the sea
After receiving some sample bottles from Pilley, Brewlab made use of a sterile environment to open them. This made sure they weren’t contaminated by any modern yeast strains. Using the samples, scientists could determine alcohol strength, bitterness, pH, color, and sugars, as well as isolate yeasts. Keith Thomas, founder of Brewlab, said the yeasts they did find had a farmyard or “wet horse” characteristic. That might not sound particularly appetizing, but Brewland used the yeast to brew a 7.5% ABV stout that closely resembled the beer that went down with the Wallachia. The stout was sent to the divers who had retrieved the original samples and Pilley remarked it had flavors of coffee and chocolate. The only complaint from tasters was there was not more of it.
Pilley said the Wallachia wreck being in dark and relatively cold (between 43 and 57 degrees Fahrenheit) waters helped maintain the yeast. In fact, this is not the first time shipwreck beer has resurfaced. Back in 1991, Original Flag Porter came from yeast found in a barge sunk in 1825. Four years ago, the yeast from a merchant ship that ran aground in Tasmania in 1797 was an important part of Wreck-Preservation Ale. And more recently, Saint James Brewery New York’s Deep Ascent ale uses yeast from the S.S. Oregon, which sank off Fire Island in 1886.
Dr. Lewis Bingle from Sunderland University told Brewlab the research they were doing on the past could help influence where brewing goes next.
“The use of advanced molecular biology is increasingly helping us to investigate artifacts,” Bingle said. “This is a good example of where the past can provide insight to future brewing.”
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