Scientists uncork 170-year-old beer

If you have ever wondered what a 170-year-old bottle of shipwrecked beer tastes of then wonder no more – vinegary, “goaty” and of sour milk.

Image credit: John Londesborough et al.

That was the conclusion of a research team, led by John Londesborough of the Technical Research Center of Finland, when they uncorked two bottles recovered from a shipwreck off the coast of Finland in 2010. Dating back to the 1840s, scientists hoped to discovering what a 19th century beer might have tasted of and provide an insight into how the beverage was made.

The 2.8 to 3.2% beers were perhaps surprisingly a “bright golden yellow, with little haze,” diluted by seawater by up to 30% percent, which also meant their original alcohol content could have been much higher at the point of bottling. The beer itself was said to have developed some unpleasant aromas including yeast extract, cabbage, plastic, burnt rubber, overripe cheese, goat and sulfur, likely to have been caused by bacteria growing inside the bottles for decades.

However despite bacterial degradation and seawater dilution, scientists were able to analyse the beer to ascertain its original flavour compounds, revealing specific flavours of “green leaf”, sweet apple and rose which would made then similar to modern larger than ales and stouts.

The team’s findings were published in the Journal of Agricultural & Food Chemistry last month, which said the two bottles contained different beers with bitterness lower in the first bottle indicating a modern light lager, and higher in the second bottle.

“Compared to modern beers, the shipwreck beers contained similar levels of potassium but 15- to 60-fold more sodium, presumably derived from sea water. This may have diluted the beers up to 30%,” the scientists wrote. “Ethanol contents were low (2.8-3.2%) compared to typical modern lagers and ales. The mass ratios of glycerol and ethanol were 4.5% for both shipwreck beers, which is typical for a yeast fermentation product.”

“In summary, these two, about 170-year-old bottles contained two different beers, one more strongly hopped than the other with the low α-acid yielding hop varieties common in the 19th century.”

Since the beers were discovered, a brewery in Finland has recreated what they believe to be as close to the real thing as possible. Called Stallhagen Historic Beer 1843, the beer is a ‘spontaneously fermented beer’ using malt and wheat.

The bottles were discovered on a shipwrecked schooner in the Baltic Sea 165ft (50 metres) deep off the coast of the Åland Islands in Finland, along with several bottles of Champagne from Piper-Heidsieck and Veuve Clicquot, 11 of which were auctioned in Paris in 2012.


by Lauren Eads for the drinks business


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