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Food and beverage stories

Shipwreck beer a global sensation

Edition 195_ShipwreckBeer

It’s the Tasmanian story sparking global excitement: the world’s oldest beer brought back to life from yeast discovered in a shipwreck off Flinders Island.

And media outlets across the world cannot get enough – from the New York Times, to the London Times, to Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post.

This is the tale of a beer resurrected from yeast, miraculously preserved in a bottle of ale, and recovered from a ship that sank in Bass Strait 220 years ago.

All thanks to a team from Launceston’s Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery (QVMAG).

“The story of this beer has really captured the world’s attention,” QVMAG Director, Richard Mulvaney, said.

“We have been inundated with non-stop calls from media across the globe. But it is also a huge brand commercial for Tasmania which all revolves around a shipwreck in our waters.”

In 1797 the merchant ship, Sydney Cove, set sail from India for the colony of NSW laden with goods –  including 30,000 litres of grog – but after a battering in wild seas, it sank near Preservation Island, off Tasmania’s north-east coast.

When the wreck was discovered in 1977, divers began retrieving artefacts which were put on display at QVMAG as part of their Sydney Cove Collection. This included three intact bottles, of what is believed to be, the world’s oldest surviving beer.

Those bottles sat unnoticed until three years ago, when QVMAG curator and home brewer, David Thurrowgood, stumbled upon them in storage and had a hunch that the beer could be resuscitated.

Precious liquid in the bottles was sent for lab-testing, and traces of 200 year-old-yeast were found to be alive. Preserved in suspended animation in the cold waters of Bass Strait.

“This was absolutely miraculous because up until then the longest that yeast had been known to live was around ten years,” Mr Mulvaney explained.

After this amazing discovery QVMAG teamed up with James Squire – the craft arm of Lion Brewery – to bring the historic beer back to life.

James Squire Head Brewer, Haydon Morgan, spent a year experimenting with the yeast to create a brew as close as possible to the beer bound for Sydney Town all those years ago.

The end result is the aptly named The Wreck-Preservation Ale.

A beer created from one single cell of yeast.

“Three cells of preserved yeast were extracted from the beer bottles on the Sydney Cove, however only one of them was suitable for brewing,” Mr Morgan said.

“And from that single yeast cell we have been able to propagate hundreds of millions of cells during the fermentation process. That one cell is now being stored under liquid nitrogen at the Australian Wine Research Institute in Adelaide.”

There is no doubt that this story is remarkable. But what of the beer itself?

The Wreck-Preservation Ale is a Porters Style beer, the dark heavy brew that was a popular in London when the Sydney Cove set sail.

“It was important for us to respect the yeast’s rich history and keep its integrity while using modern day brewing techniques,” Mr Morgan said.

“The yeast is very fruity and spicy, and after creating a lot of different recipes we decided that the Porters Style worked best for this occasion.”

This is a rich smooth beer with a deep colour and overtones of a chocolatey malt. The distinct spicy aroma of the yeast comes through strongly. It also has a high alcohol content sitting at around 6%.

Mr Morgan calls it “a really great beer that’s perfect to drink on a cold winter’s night.”

However, as with everything, results speak for themselves. And in the case of The Wreck-Preservation Ale they have been outstanding.

The beer was launched in May at Melbourne’s Great Australian Beer Spectacular, where it quickly became Lion Brewery’s top product accounting for 80% of sales.

Lion Brand Manager, Alex Perry, said it was “an absolute show-stopper. People are loving the story and they are loving the beer.”

The Wreck-Preservation Ale is now available at James Squire Ale Houses across Australia. Unfortunately, there are none in Tasmania, but limited release packs will be distributed nationally later this year.

In the meantime, part-profits from sales are being donated to QVMAG to fund continued research into the Sydney Cove.

Image courtesy of Mike Nash, Parks and Wildlife

12 June 2018, Edition 195

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