Everyone knows that X marks the spot. Hidden treasure troves that could entice any pirate of the Caribbean lie across and beneath the waves. But what if we could drink the same rum that Captain Jack Sparrow adored so much? Well thanks to the efforts of a single diver off the Scottish coast, we are recreating the flavours of ancient beer.
By Andrew Cook
Just off the Scottish coast, a ship has lain on the seafloor since 1895. Forgotten along the seabed for almost 100 years, the Wallachia lay untouched and undisturbed in the darkness as the ocean floor gradually moved in to claim it.
Layers of silt began to cover the decks and gradually made their way inside through the gigantic tear in the starboard side, until sediment and tiny denizens of the deep made it their home.
Now, thanks to an intrepid diver named Steve Hickman – we are redefining the future of brewing.
The Lost Cargo
The Wallachia is, or rather was, a single crew cargo steamer owned by William Burrel & Son of Glasgow. Among her regular tasks was to make runs between Glasgow and the West Indies.
Unfortunately for her, during a foggy morning with little visibility in 1895, she was accidentally rammed by a 1,406 ton Norwegian steamer named Flos speeding out of the mists.
Fortunately for us, she was filled to the brim with earthenware jars that survived more or less intact. Among this precious cargo included hundreds of samples filled with beer from McEwans.
The British Empire effectively functioned on such brews during this period, after all it was the great Queen Victoria who decreed “Give my people plenty of beer, good beer, and cheap beer, and you will have no revolution among them.”
Remember that the next time someone says that the Empire was built on tea!
The Recovery Efforts
Steve Hickman is a dive technician and amateur diver, and a regular at the site of the Wallachia. Since the 1980’s he has been braving the depths and exploring the near-impenetrable visibility of the silt-filled holds. Using only a small, netted bag, his recoveries that he has brought to the surface include whisky, gin and beer.
But the real game-changer has only appeared recently. Despite the cold, dark conditions that make it so ideal for preserving yeast and other bacteria, many items from the depths are damaged, meaning that the original states have not always been maintained. Even under perfect conditions, many bottles have a tendency to explode when brought to the surface due to changing pressures.
Recently, however, a team from Brewlab and the University of Sunderland have managed to extract liquid yeast from some samples retrieved from the depths.
And they resemble nothing of the beers of today.
The New (or Ancient) Kind of Yeast
Even the most fervent alcohol aficionado could be forgiven for not understanding the complexities of brewing, so bear with us as we dive right in.
As a nation of heavy-drinkers, our breweries have fallen into the habit of using yeasts primarily from the Saccharomyces cerevisiae family. (Don’t ask us to say it out loud – we have no idea how to!) And only a very small minority of sour beers nowadays use strains from the Brettanomyces family.
But the treasure trove from the Wallachia not only contains the aforementioned yeast strains, but also from the Debaryomyces strain.
This mix of yeast strains, both common and unheard of, mean that ancient beers were filled with vastly varied flavours and notes that we currently do not experience drinking at the pub with our mates nowadays. Of course scientists also discovered tremendous amounts of bacteria within the beers, proving that ancient brewing was incredibly unhygienic, but naturally they are leaving those parts out of the recreation process!
The Initial Results
Preliminary bottles have been produced in an effort to recreate the bottles of the 7.5% Stout retrieved from the Wallachia. Strong hints of coffee and chocolate wrapped up in a low-carbonated, dark beer that by all accounts goes down far too well.
Now Brewlab are undergoing in-depth microbiology experimentation to investigate the possibilities of other yeast strains in brewing processes.
Could the same beer be vastly changed via fermentation with a different yeast strain? Could the processes become more efficient? What qualities will be available in the future?
This is not limited to only the brewing industry either. The possibilities of recreating ancient bread, of culinary experts inventing vastly different pizza bases – and even the future of pharmaceutical companies creating new compounds in different conditions is at stake. The chemicals being created via different varieties of yeast could possibly lead to incredible breakthroughs in life-saving medicine for future generations.
The End of a Legacy
All of this and more, from the hands of one diver in a shipwreck off the coast of Scotland. However time is running out for the Wallachia. As the days go by, the incessant ebbs and flows of the tides are wearing down the ancient walls of the Wallachia as the seabed tries to claim her prize and drag it down to Davy Jones’ locker.
Within the next 20-30 years, it is more than likely that the remaining pieces of the Wallachia will disappear from memory, and the treasure trove of yeast strains will be scattered and lost forever.
Until such time, we must remember that truly, through beer, all things are possible.