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Detail of the painting ‘The Ale-House Door’ (c. 1790) by Henry Singleton.

Oldest Bottle of Beer in the World Recovered from Shipwreck Inspires Recreation of Historic Brew

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A 220-year-old bottle of beer recovered from the Sydney Cove shipwreck that sank near Tasmania in Australia has inspired creativity amongst a team of researchers. They have used yeast found within the bottle to recreate a historic brew and plan to use the funds from selling it to aid conservation efforts at a local museum and key archaeological sites.

Live Science reports that the team of scientists who recreated the old beer came from Australia, France, Germany, and Belgium. They used the over 200-year-old yeast found within an unopened beer bottle and a traditional recipe from the era to brew a “mild-tasting beer.”

Bottles of the newly recreated beer. ( David Thurrowgood )

Together, the scientists managed to revive five distinct species of yeast microbes from the old beer bottle. “The yeast is an unusual three-way hybrid with links to bakers, brewers and wine yeast,” project leader David Thurrowgood, a conservator and chemist at the Queen Victoria Museum and Gallery (QVMAG) at Launceston in Tasmania, explained to the Daily Mail , “It is genetically different to hundreds of the yeast species it has been compared to from Australia and around the world. Traditionally beer was brewed in open vats, this yeast is consistent with historic brewing practices.”

According to Live Science, the scientists also found several species of bacteria within the bottle “which will provide rare information about the microorganisms in human diets from a time before the Industrial Revolution in Europe.” Thurrowgood explained , “People talk about autoimmune diseases and other issues [relating to] the fact that we have quite a clean diet today, whereas in the past we had a diet full of microbes. This is one of the few chances we've got to actually test those microbes, and actually see what they were.”

Scientists examining samples from the 220 year old beer in the lab.

Scientists examining samples from the 220 year old beer in the lab. ( Live Science )

QVMAG director Richard Mulvaney told the Daily Mail that there are plans to continue studying the yeasts and bacteria from the beer and other alcohol bottles recovered from the shipwreck. He said “We will also study the wine and spirits from the cargo, possibly enabling the recreation of other historic brews. The bottles also enable study of historic red wine molecules to see if they are different to modern red wine and its reported health benefits, and to study other possible dietary micro-organisms from 220 years ago.”

The Sydney Cove shipwreck was explored by marine archaeologists in the 1990s. They found several bottles and casks of beer, as well as bottles of wine, brandy and gin, amongst other artifacts. Many of the artifacts collected from the wreckage have been put on display at the QVMAG. The museum’s website asserts that the Sydney Cove was the first merchant vessel to perish in Australian waters.

Discovery of the beer bottle in the 1990s and the bottle in the lab.

Discovery of the beer bottle in the 1990s and the bottle in the lab. ( Mike Nash/QVMAG )

The Sydney Cove was a small merchant ship which was carrying a cargo that mostly consisted of alcohol, food, textiles, and livestock when it ran aground in February 1797. It was on route from Calcutta (Kolkata), India to Port Jackson, Australia when it met its fate.

The recreated beer’s name, Preservation Ale, was inspired by the grueling 600 km (370 mile) trek the shipwreck’s 17 survivors took overland across Preservation Island towards Port Jackson. Their journey led them through unknown territory which was inhabited by friendly and hostile tribes. Only three of the survivors made it to Port Jackson in May 1797. As Thurrowgood said “They were the first Europeans to do that trek, so in terms of early colonial history, it was an enormous trip and tale of survival — I don't know how they did it.”

Dedication plaques at Tathra Memorial Garden including one commemorating the centenary of the 1797 wreck of the Sydney Cove and the survivors’ arduous trek.

Dedication plaques at Tathra Memorial Garden including one commemorating the centenary of the 1797 wreck of the Sydney Cove and the survivors’ arduous trek. (Brian Jenkins/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

Although it is not yet on the market, the researchers believe there is a good chance the beer could become popular. “It's got quite a sweet taste — some people have described it as almost a cider or fresh taste — which has come from the yeast,” Thurrowgood told Live Science.

The researchers hope that the beer will provide funds in the future to help preserve the museum's collection of artifacts from the Sydney Cove shipwreck and the survivors' camp sites on Preservation Island as well. Thurrowgood told Live Science that some of the future possibilities could be “establishing a mini brewery at the historic museum buildings in Launceston, or creating a homebrew beer based on the 18th-century yeast strain.”

Detail from Matthew Flinders’ 1798 chart showing Preservation Island, the Sydney Cove shipwreck, and other historic locations.

Detail from Matthew Flinders’ 1798 chart showing Preservation Island, the Sydney Cove shipwreck, and other historic locations. ( Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW )

Top Image: Detail of the painting ‘The Ale-House Door (c. 1790) by Henry Singleton. Source: Public Domain

By Alicia McDermott

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