Finnish scientists may soon have a new brew on tap, if they can figure out the recipe used to make what is perhaps the oldest known bottled beer in the world. For about 200 years, five brown bottles of beer were kept well-chilled on a shipwreck in the Baltic Sea. One of those prized bottles is currently at the VTT Technical Research Center of Finland, being carefully analyzed by scientists clothed in clean room coveralls and bouffant caps, face masks, and gloves.
The brewmaster who created that beer could not have ever imagined such a fuss over it. Five of his bottles survived a shipwreck during the early 1800s off the Åland Islands of Finland. The beer was discovered in the summer of 2010 by divers who had just recovered the oldest-known cache of bottled champagne from the same shipwreck.
According to CNN, the ship may have been sailing from Copenhagen, Denmark, to St. Petersburg, Russia, carrying on board gifts from King Louis XVI of France to the Russian Imperial Court.
The VTT scientists, who have considerable experience in malt and brewery research, have begun to study this record vintage beer. They have carefully unsealed the bottle and extracted from it a slightly cloudy golden-amber liquid with a light froth.
But what about the taste test? According to the BBC, four professional beer tasters have tried the antique brew. Annika Wilhelmson of the VTT commented,
“They said that it did taste very old, which is no surprise, with some burnt notes. But it was quite acidic – which could mean there’s been some fermenting going on in the bottle and with time it’s become acid,”
The beer bottles were found at a depth of about 160 feet, where seawater temperatures are just above freezing. After two hundred years of deep chill, there may be surviving microbes – yeast or lactic acid bacteria – still sluggishly alive in the brew. If not, dead cells can be recovered for DNA analysis to determine the yeast strains used to ferment the beer. Chemical analysis of the liquid will shed light on the grains and other ingredients that were used to make the beer.
In a press release from the VTT, Annika Wilhelmson, a customer manager, said,
It is very interesting to find out what kind of yeast was used in beer brewing in the early 1800s, and what the beer’s quality was like. Was it perhaps very strong and bitter? The role of yeast in beer brewing was not yet fully understood in the early 1800s.
Learning about how the beer was made is, in itself, a fascinating exercise. But the provincial government of Åland wants to take it a step further: they plan to use the research findings to recreate the original recipe, to continue the craft of a brewmaster who lived some 200 years ago.
The secrets in the bottles of beer, lost at sea in the early 1800s and recovered from a shipwreck off the Åland islands of Finland in the summer of 2010, may be known as early as May 2011. Scientists at the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland plan to release a scientific paper about their findings. Buried in the technical details of their analysis will be the real treasure, a recipe to resurrect a beer of remarkable historical vintage.
Shireen Gonzaga is a freelance writer who enjoys writing about natural history. She is also a technical editor at an astronomical observatory where she works on documentation for astronomers. Shireen has many interests and hobbies related to the natural world. She lives in Cockeysville, Maryland.