Australian beer-loving scientists have achieved a world first, reviving the oldest known samples of beer from a 220-year-old Tasmanian shipwreck.

The Sydney Cove was one of the first commercial ships to make the perilous journey to the colonies, back in 1797. Unfortunately, it sprang a lead and ran aground on tiny Preservation Island, in Bass Strait.

While most of the crew were rescued, the cargo was not, and lay dormant under sand and seagrass until the 1990s, when the ship was salvaged and artefacts exhibited at Launceston’s Queen Victoria Museum.

Late last year, new museum conservator David Thurrowgood was surprised to find bottles from the wreck still contained liquid beer, making them – so far as he could ascertain – the oldest samples of intact beer in the world.

Unaware that such a task had ever been achieved before, he set about attempting to find live yeast cultures in the liquid to revive and use to brew a replication of the ancient beer.

The ABC’s Catalyst program has documented the pioneering exercise, which involved scientists from the Victoria Museum, the Australian Wine Research Institute, and the Centre for Ancient DNA.

The team isolated five yeasts of types expected in brewing of the time, including one that is new to science: a hybrid closely related to old-style brewers’ yeasts from Europe.

These yeasts have now been used to brew a recreation of the beer, and the ultimate beer geeks involved have recently tasted it for the first time. Is it any good?

See Catalyst this Tuesday (14 June) 8pm, on ABC.


Mike Clarke of Sauce Brewing had this to say about the project.

“There are breweries in Europe, Belgium comes to mind, who have been culturing and re-using the same strain of yeast for centuries.

“But I don’t think they’ve ever tried to re-culture a yeast that has been dormant for over two hundred years! It will be interesting to see how this yeast compares to a modern strain.”

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