In 1796 a merchant ship left Calcutta, India, bound for Sydney. On board was more than 30,000 litres of alcohol – mostly rum, wine and beer – destined for Australia. The ship never made it; it was abandoned in waters off Preservation Island, where it ran aground in 1797, north-east of Tasmania.
The wreck was rediscovered in 1977 lying in shallow water, covered in sand. The wreck was salvaged in the ’90s, including some of its cargo and the beer, which has since been on display in Launceston’s Queen Victoria Museum & Art Gallery. It’s the oldest intact beer ever recovered and now, after 220 years, some of that booze is finally reaching its original destination.
David Thurrowgood, a chemist-turned-conservator at QVMAG, says in 2016 he and his team noticed that some of the beer bottles remained intact with liquid still inside. That sparked an idea: while the beer itself might not be in great condition, what if they could open one to recover the live yeast? (Beer is made by fermenting yeast.)
To assist, Thurrowgood engaged the Australian Wine Research Institute in Adelaide to open and examine one bottle of the centuries-old beer. To their surprise the yeast was still active, so they went about isolating, identifying and making it usable once again. What they found was a yeast strain that predates known commercial strains and something “quite different” compared to anything else on record. Along with Darrell Howard, a fellow QVMAG scientist and avid homebrewer, they decided to do the obvious: make a beer.
“We knew we’d have live yeast but we certainly had no idea of what it was going to taste like,” Thurrowgood says. “That was the first step, to see if it was potentially drinkable or not.”
Out of the four main ingredients in beer, yeast does a lot of the heavy lifting. Without it, the sugars wouldn’t be turned into alcohol and as part of the process it gives the beer a flavour, which can be pleasant, like banana and spice, or unpleasant, like nail-polish remover. Fortunately for the QVMAG team the beer turned out great.
“We were really quite thrilled. We deliberately made a brew that let the taste of the yeast come through, so we didn’t really use intense hops or anything. It was a very light, refreshing brew,” Thurrowgood says.
With the help of James Squire, that homebrew-slash-lab-experiment has become a commercial beer – The Wreck Preservation Ale – which will launch later this month at beer festivals in Melbourne and Sydney. During further trials with the James Squire brewers, everyone has been surprised at the versatility of the yeast. Thurrowgood says it works well at different temperatures, is very sturdy, consumes more complex sugars than most other brewing yeasts while staying healthy in the process and has pleasant flavours similar to those found in many Belgian yeasts. As a result of these trials they’ve decided to brew a porter with English hops. A nod to the bottle’s supposed origins in the UK.
Thurrowgood says they’ll decide what to do next depending on the success of the beer. They’ve had inquiries from home brewers and even commercial yeast banks asking them to make the yeast available for commercial use. But with some of the sales of this unique beer to go directly back to the museum, he is reluctant to share the yeast with the wider public just yet.
“Selling the beer is important to us because we are not that well funded a regional museum. Most museums are very poorly funded at the moment and we’re being encouraged to find commercial options,” he explains.
It’s also yet to be confirmed if James Squire will make more batches or different beers with the yeast.
“Ultimately it’s then going to depend if people are keen enough and interested, through the brew houses, to try it. Really the public reaction will be the decider,” Thurrowgood says.
If you want to taste the porter, you can stop by the James Squire stand at GABS Beer, Cider & Food Festival in Melbourne (May 18 to 20), and Sydney (June 2). It will also go on tap at James Squires’s new flagship brewhouse in Circular Quay in Sydney when it opens later this month.