Australian Researchers Brew Beer With Yeast Believed to Be from a 220-Year-Old Shipwreck

A glimpse into the boozy past

Shipwreck beer
A diver recovering a bottle of beer from the wreck of the Sydney Cove. Australian National Shipwreck Database

In 1797, the merchant ship Sydney Cove sank beneath the waves off the coast of Tasmania, loaded with goods like clothing, rice, tea and beer on its way to Port Jackson. Now, more than 200 years later, the alcoholic haul appears to have been resurrected for modern times by a team of Australian researchers.

At the turn of the 19th century, beer wasn’t just a boozy beverage: it was also precious cargo, especially for the remote British colony.  However, even after centuries sitting buried in sand at the bottom of the sea, several bottles of beer survived intact—and that includes the yeast used to brew them, Ariel Bogle reports for Mashable Australia.

The wreck site of the Sydney Cove was discovered in 1977 and several surviving bottles were salvaged during a later excavation of the site in the 1990s. Since then, the beer bottles have belonged to the collection of the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery in Launceston, Tasmania, near where the ship went down. However, conservator and chemist David Thurrowgood suspected that some of the yeast may have survived the centuries, and decided to take a crack at bringing the beer back to life, Sandy Guy reports for Australian Geographic.

“Initial analysis of the alcohol was undertaken 25 years ago, and revealed grapes, port wine and beer. It was preserved thanks to secure corkage and by being kept cool at the bottom of the ocean,” Thurrowgood tells Guy. “I thought we might be able to culture yeast and recreate beer that hasn't been on the planet for 220 years.”

After the bottles were brought to the surface, two were decanted into new containers, while another remained sealed. Unfortunately, attempts to analyze the sealed bottle indicated that it contained some sort of oil instead of beer. But when Thurrowgood and his colleagues examined the decanted samples, they discovered that the 220-year-old booze was still crawling with living yeast, Josh Elliott reports for CTV.

The yeast contains strains of Brettanomyces and Saccharomyces, Guy reports. While Saccharomyces is often used today to brew booze, earning its nickname "beer yeast,"​ Brettanomyces, which is often called "wild yeast​" is known for its unpredictable fermentations and was common in beers when the Sydney Cove set sail. While there is a possibility that the yeast is the result of contamination, DNA analysis shows that the yeast found in Sydney Cove’s cargo contains genetic sequences unlike any modern strains known today, Guy reports.

"The yeast is an unusual three way hybrid with links to bakers, brewers and wine yeast," Thurrowgood says in a statement. "It is genetically different to hundreds of yeast species it has been compared to from Australia and around the world.”

Of course, identifying the yeast was just the first step: Thurrowgood and his team then had to taste test it. While they left the 220-year-old beer alone, the researchers used yeast grown from the samples harvested from the shipwreck to brew a batch of beer they have called “Preservation Ale,” Elliott reports. To do so, the team followed an 18th-century recipe similar to what the original brewers might have used to create the drink. The result? A beer that Thurrowgood says has a “light and fresh” flavor.

The beer offers new insight into how 18th-century brewers worked, and the Queen Victoria Museum now has tentative plans to brew, bottle and sell batches of the Preservation Ale. Meanwhile, Thurrowgood will turn his attention to another aged alcohol: a bottle of wine still intact from the very same shipwreck.

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