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Scientists try to recreate 200-year-old shipwreck beer

posted 22 Feb 2011, 10:43 by Mpelembe   [ updated 22 Feb 2011, 10:47 ]

Six months after salvaging what is believed to be one of the world's oldest beers from a 200-year-old shipwreck in the Baltic Sea, scientists are now trying to reconstruct the beer's recipe to brew a modern-day version.

HELSINKI, FINLAND (RECENT)  VTT - A group of Finnish scientists analysing a beer estimated to be some 200 years old, hope to revive it.

Last summer, divers found five bottles of beer in a ship wreck, which possibly sunk in the first half of the 19th century near Aland islands, an autonomous part of Finland, in the Baltic Sea.

The authorities of Aland are mulling a possibility to start reproduction of the beer, but first the recipe needs to be cracked.

Researchers at the Technical Research Centre of Finland (VTT) have since early February analysed samples of the beer, the bottle, the cork and the sediment of the sea, where it was found, to establish what ingredients were used to make the beer and to find out if the yeast cells are still alive.

"It is going to involve some detective work, some chemical detective work. We can analyse it and say what aroma compounds are in it now and try to guess how they have changed during the 200 years it's been underneath the sea, work back from that and try to figure out what it was like," explained project manager John Londesborough from the VTT.

"If we only find only one living yeast cell that may not have been a main one. We hope that we'll find several yeast cells, which are different from each other and we'll try making beer with these different yeasts and see what kind of beer can be made," he said.

The beer from two bottles have been tasted and because the tasters described them differently it seems that the beer in different bottles has changed significantly having spent 200 years at the bottom of the sea. It is also possible the bottles contained different types of beer.

"There is the bottle that broke on the boat and the people who had tested that immediately when it broke said it tasted quite good. Then there is the bottle we opened here in this laboratory a week ago, and that did not taste so good. That was very acid, very smoky, little bit salty. It was tasted by experienced beer tasters and one of the words they've used was 'burned rubber'," Londesborough said.

The scientists are now in the process of taking and analysing DNA samples from the beer.

"There is most likely DNA fragments from different species and we have to isolate and separate these DNA fragment from these different species and in that step we use this kind of "sub-cloning". So we isolate from this all individual DNA fragment to this carrier DNA, where we can then sequence that sequence of that DNA fragment," said Senior Research Scientist Kari Koivuranta.

In a secret place in the VTT building, in a box of cold water, there is another bottle of the wreck beer, which the researchers may open if they find some yeast strains in the first bottle that could be compared with the beer in the other bottle.

The Aland government said various breweries had already shown interest in the possibility to start remaking beer with the ancient recipe, but added it was far too early to estimate when the reproduction could begin, if all goes well.

The work to find out more about the ship, which name is not yet known, is being carried out and the plan is to continue exploring the wreckage in the summer.

During the dive, the divers also found 145 bottles of champagne, which is the oldest drinkable champagne in the world, including some bottles of Veuve Clicquot.

Because the wreck lies off Aland, it is owned by the local authorities. Now the government plans to start an annual vintage champagne auction in Mariehamn with the possibility of some bottles of the vintage wreckage champagne coming to sale in June.