Back in 2010, five bottles of beer and 168 bottles of champagne were found in a submerged schooner near the Åland Islands off the coast of Finland. The shipwreck is believed to have been down there since 1842, and the discovery remains the oldest batch of still-drinkable beer.
Now, staff at a Åland-based brewery called Stallhagen are figuring out how to recreate this ancient beer by studying the bacteria it contains. Beer manufacturers are able to tinker with the flavour of beer by experimenting with different yeast cultures. "Part of the process where new taste profiles are created rests on the way in which yeasts turn sugar into alcohol,” says Tim Sandle at Digital Journal. "Certain bacteria can also play a role in this process, and combinations of different bacteria with yeast can also influence the taste, smell and body of the beer."
Teaming up with researchers at the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland and the KU Leuven’s Brewing Technology Research Group in Belgium, the Stallhagen staff were able to isolate 172-year-old lactic acid bacteria from the shipwrecked beer bottles. Amazingly, the bacteria were still alive.
The team suggests that the chilly sea water at a depth of 50 metres below the surface basically froze the beer, and with barely any light penetrating the water that far down, the ship acted like a perfect storage unit.
After several years of analysing the chemical make-up of the beer, the team has just announced that they have successfully recreated the beer.
“Based on the micro-organisms in the bottles, we were able to figure out which type of yeast and bacteria were used by the beer’s 19th-century brewers. This information allowed us to trace the beer back to Belgium,” Gert De Rouck, a 'master brewer' from Stallhagen, told Gaynor Selby at The Guardian. “We combined history and tradition with innovative brewing knowledge. The symbiosis between the organisms and the malt flavours results in the very special overall flavour of this beer.”
It’s not clear how the bacteria survived in such conditions, but then, we shouldn't really be surprised by what bacteria can do, considering that some species are known to live in 122-degree-Celsius conditions, while others are happy living in temperatures as low as -12 degrees Celsius. According to Sandle at Digital Journal, the Åland shipwreck bacteria are said to be the oldest living non-spore forming bacteria ever found in beer.
The team says their beer will be on the market sometime next year, with a hefty price tag of €113 (AUD$165) per bottle for the premium stuff. A more affordable replica is selling at around €6 (AUD$8) in Finland. They're now working on conducting a complete genetic analysis of the bacteria to figure out how they survived so long, and exactly what species they belong to.
We're not sure whether we want to try 172-year-old shipwrecked beer, or that new space whiskey more.
Watch the discovery of the ancient beer below: