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Beer Brewed from 1797 Shipwreck's Bottle

Australia’s Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery in Launceston, Tasmania has successfully brewed beer from what is believed to be the world’s oldest beer, surviving in a bottle salvaged from the historic shipwreck Sydney Cove from 1797 located at Preservation Island, Tasmania.

Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery Conservator David Thurrowgood has initiated and coordinated research into the bottle contents by assembling a team of expert scientists from Australia, France, Germany and Belgium.

The research team isolated live yeast from the bottle contents and used it to brew beer using period recipes. The beer has a distinctly light and fresh flavor, giving a taste of beer that has not been experienced for 220 years.

"The yeast is an unusual three way hybrid with links to bakers, brewers and wine yeast," said Thurrowgood. "It is genetically different to hundreds of yeast species it has been compared to from Australia and around the world. Traditionally beer was brewed in open vats. This yeast is consistent with historic brewing practices."

The wreck is known for the range of preserved fragile organic materials including rice, tobacco, ink, textiles, leather, wine and spirits that are frequently lost on other wreck sites.

"Possibly the wreck has now also given us the world's only known pre-industrial revolution brewing yeast," said Thurrowgood.

The Sydney Cove, a British trading ship, was caught in a storm off Tasmania en route from Calcutta to the prison colony at Port Jackson, now the city of Sydney. The crew of the Sydney Cove survived by grounding the sinking ship on a tiny island off northern Tasmania, now called Preservation Island, which is part of the inspiration for the name of the recreated beer: Preservation Ale. 

A party of the vessel’s survivors set out in an open boat to reach the colony at Port Jackson. The voyage took them across Bass Strait, between Tasmania and the Australian mainland, where they were wrecked again on the coast.

The voyagers then faced an overland trek of more than 370 miles (600 kilometers) through unknown territory peopled by both friendly and hostile aboriginal tribes. Of the 17 individuals who set out, just three made it to Port Jackson in May 1797.

The museum plans to continue its research into the yeasts and bacteria recovered from the wreck’s bottles including the study of wine and spirits from the cargo, possibly enabling recreation of other historic brews.

The bottles are expected to enable study of historic red wine molecules to see if they are different to modern red wine and its reported health benefits, and to study other possible dietary micro-organisms from 220 years ago.

Thurrowgood said several brewing companies are keen to market Preservation Ale, but so far, the entire stock consists of a few bottles brewed for his research. He says it is possible that the Museum may establish a mini brewery or create a home brew beer based on the yeast strain.

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