Published on November 14th, 2014 | by Alastair Gilmour


Getting wrecked on beer

Scientists will go to great lengths – and depths – to recreate historic beers, writes Alastair Gilmour

Belgian scientists have recreated a 19th Century beer from the contents of bottles discovered on a ship wrecked off the coast of Finland.

The bottles, brought up in 2010, had lain 50 metres under water since 1842. The government of the autonomous Åland Islands called on researchers at Belgium’s KU Leuven’s Brewing Technology Research Group to analyse the antique brew. Following several years of reconstruction work in which bacteria and yeast were traced back to Belgium, Stallhagen, a Finnish brewery, is now marketing what it claims is an accurate recreation of the beer.

Stallhagen is ready to introduce the unique flavour to the international market. But let’s hang on a minute and claim a bit of a first for the North East of England. In 1988, a technician working at Brewlab in Sunderland – the world-renowned provider of training and analysis services for the brewing industry – had been diving in the English Channel just of Littlehampton and noticed an ancient bottle on a shelf behind the bar of a nearby pub. It was a bottle of Porter from the “Bottle Wreck” a sailing barge which sank in 1825. Many of the bottles it carried remained intact as they were tightly sealed with wax.

“Brewlab sponsored a dive to obtain fresh samples,” says Dr Keith Thomas, Brewlab founder. “The beer was far lighter in colour than expected but it had deteriorated by staling and leakage of seawater. The aroma was of a stale, musty cellar with the background pungency of old port, while the taste was of ancient leather and salty sea spray.

“A sample was taken of the sediment and observed under the microscope where yeast cells were observed – many of them dead and empty, but a few appeared to be intact, or at least shrunken.

“Analysis indicated that the alcohol level was 6.3% abv and the colour a very light 90 units.”

Repetitive culturing from a second bottle produced one yeast which was eventually purified and trialled in a test brew. Now called Flag Porter – modelled on the brown porter style of around around 1800 rather than on the richly roasted Victorian porters – it would have been more typical of the spicy, estery porter that would likely to have been carried by a ship on the south coast in 1825.

Keith Thomas says: “We have conducted more technical work on the microbiology and are brewing alternative versions using the same yeast with the hope that we have a range at some point in the future.”

The same recipe Flag Porter is brewed by Darwin Brewery, the commercial arm of Brewlab, while “a more commercially viable” replica of the champagne-like Finnish beer sells in Finland at around six euros for a 37.5cl bottle. There are plans to promote the beer on a global scale, with profits helping to support scientific projects, including archaeological research in Finnish waters.

“This beer is absolutely delicious and offers consumers a taste of history,” said Stallhagen boss Jan Wennström. “It’s golden yellow with none of the typical bitterness or hops aroma. The taste profile is closer to wine than beer.”

Don’t forget, Mr Wennström, you weren’t first.

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Alastair Gilmour

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