Call it ancient ale: Researchers from the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland may be able to re-create 19th-century beer using live bacteria retrieved from bottles found in a shipwreck near the Åland Islands. The unnamed ship hit the bottom of the Baltic Sea sometime in the 1840s and was discovered in 2010; in addition to bottles of beer, the ship also was carrying coffee and spices.
Researchers were able to identify the “beautiful pale golden liquid” in the bottles as beer based on the “presence of malt sugars, aromatic compounds and hops typical of the beverage.” A chemical analysis revealed the beer's tasting notes: “Hints of rose, almond and cloves.”
The analysis also gave clues about how the beer was originally brewed. “The pale golden colour indicates that the beers were made from unroasted malt. The burned flavour suggests that heating at the mashing stage was not under control. It is possible, though, that a smoky flavour in beer was appreciated at the time. ” The researchers speculate that the beers “were probably made from grain – barley or wheat or a combination of the two” and that hops were added before the wort was boiled.
What makes the find so promising is the discovery of live lactic aid bacteria, which could help reproduce the beer and give us modern folks a taste of what Nordic sailors were drinking in the 1840s. As Annika Wilhelmson told Reuters, “Based on the chemical analysis we made of the beer and with help from a master brewer it would be possible to try to make beer that would resemble it as much as possible.”
The Government of Åland commissioned VTT to analyze the shipwreck and specifically study whether the beer could be reverse-engineered and replicated.