• More than a drink, this brew is also a snapshot of Australian life in the 1790s. (James Squire)Source: James Squire
Made with 220-year-old yeast derived from a beer bottle discovered on a shipwreck. Sip a piece of Australian history.
Yasmin Noone

20 Jun 2018 - 10:18 AM  UPDATED 20 Jun 2018 - 9:09 AM

Beer-loving Australians have a reason to celebrate (with a drink in hand, of course) – our nation has taken ownership of a respected and rather historic global honour.

Australian brewer James Squire claims to have created the world’s oldest surviving beer, made with 220-year-old yeast derived from an intact beer bottle discovered at the bottom of a shipwreck.

This old beer made new, The Wreck Preservation Ale, was officially launched in Sydney this month.

David Thurrowgood, a chemist-turned-conservator at Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery (QVMAG), is one of the main brains behind the beer’s development. He believes The Wreck is not just a simple alcoholic beverage – it’s a connection to Australia’s colonial history.

“We are just thrilled that everyone in Australia will be able to try a beer from the late 1790s,” says Thurrowgood.

“But this is a story that goes beyond beer. Almost everything from the 1790s is gone. Now, we have a beer that tells us about the diets of people who lived 200 years ago.

“It’s a piece of living history. It’s the oldest bottled beer in the world, so it’s of tremendous scientific and cultural significance.”

"Almost everything from the 1790s is gone. Now, we have a beer that tells us about the diets of people who lived 200 years ago."

A limited batch of the porter beer is currently available to drink at all James Squire brewhouses across the country. James Squire confirms it will release a special-edition bottle for individual sale soon.

Haydon Morgan, head brewer at James Squire’s Malt Shovel Brewery in Sydney's Camperdown, also worked on the beer. He advises that The Wreck should be drunk slowly and its strong taste savoured.

“When you give the beer a good swirl, you get these spicy characters that come off it that are yeast-driven,” says Morgan. “But you also get chocolate notes which are malt-based and sit with a porter style.

“This kind of beer goes fantastic with chocolate-based desserts and char-grilled sirloins. It’s 6.1 per cent alcohol, so you don’t want to have too many glasses in one night.”

Although the notion of a 220-year-old beer sounds like a far-fetched convict tale twisted with marketing propaganda, the folk behind The Wreck insist that its age has been validated.

The historic claim has also been confirmed by QVMAG and Australian Wine Research Institute, which worked on the aged yeast to create the brew and it's not yet disputed by any other body. 

“What we are talking about here is [a discovery] of the only pre-industrial revolution microbiological source of food from that era,” Thurrowgood says.

“It’s a food with a microbiology that hasn’t been experienced by the world for a long time.”

So how did yeast from convict times make its way into beer we can buy and drink today?

In 1796, the ship Sydney Cove left India, with Sydney as its planned destination. Months later, it sunk in the waters surrounding Tasmania’s Preservation Island. The vessel, crammed with cargo including over 31,500 litres of alcohol, remained forgotten at the bottom of the ocean, until it was found by divers in 1977.

The wreck and its surviving property were recovered in the 1990s, but put to one side in Launceston’s QVMAG.

That was, until Thurrowgood discovered the contents in one of the three salvaged beer bottles from the wreck was still intact and free of saltwater contamination due to its unusual red wax seal. He then worked with the AWRI to grow the long-dormant yeast found in the sludge at the bottle’s base.

James Squire then got involved. Nicknamed ‘the zombie yeast’, the brewers had to first ensure the volatile yeast could also be killed and wouldn’t spread throughout the brewery uncontrollably. Once they confirmed it didn’t have ‘zombie qualities’, they developed it into a drinkable beer.

Thurrowgood insists that if The Wreck is successful with consumers, additional batches can be made – forever – because the team has worked out how to genetically reproduce the original yeast strain. There’s also potential to use the yeast to make sourdough bread.

“The master culture [has gone] into a genetic deep freeze, so the genetics won’t change,” Thurrowgood says. “At any time we need to, we can just take one or two of those cells and propagate them into billions of cells very, very quickly.

“So that means we can actually remake this beer in theory as many times as we need to, as we can monitor the yeast so that it doesn’t change its genetics. There are many beer brands new on the market which won’t survive very long, but we feel that this beer has a unique story.”

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