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VTT examined beer from Åland shipwreck:


Four bacterial species found alive in antique beer

Researchers in Finland have discovered live bacterial species in antique beer originating from the mid-1800´s. The discovery has interesting potential for food and health applications, according to VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland.

A few bottles of beer were found in an old shipwreck in the archipelago of Åland in Finland during the summer of 2010. Researchers have now managed to isolate four different species of live lactic acid bacteria from the beer.

- Lactic acid bacteria derived from the old beer have interesting potential applications, especially in the food and beverage industry. They are stress tolerant and potentially very stable in food and non-food matrixes. Live cultures offer opportunities for modifying the structure, taste, healthiness and safety of the products. The isolated bacteria provide interesting model organisms to understand and improve long-term survival of non-spore-forming bacteria, said Annika Wilhelmson, Key Account Manager at VTT.

VTT was commissioned by the Government of Åland to study the composition of the shipwreck beer and identify the type of yeast used to brew it. The aim of the project was to study what early 19th-century beer was like and whether its production process could be reverse-engineered and the beer replicated. The study involved an analysis of the physico-chemical properties of the beer and microbiological and DNA analyses of the beer, bottle and cork. In particular, the aim was to isolate any living microbes.

Pale golden coloured beer

Both bottles contained beautiful pale golden liquids, identified as beer by the presence of malt sugars, aromatic compounds and hops typical of the beverage. Chemical analyses showed that the beer could originally have featured hints of rose, almond and cloves. However, the beers in the bottles examined had not stood the test of time well.

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 beers were probably made from grain – barley or wheat or a combination of the two. Hops, of a variety typical of a couple of centuries ago, had been added before boiling the wort.

Four different species of live lactic acid bacteria were isolated from the beer. Pediococcus damnosus, Lactobacillus malefermentans and “Lactobacillus backii” are highly adapted to growing in beer and in association with brewing yeast. The fourth one, Lactobacillus kisonensis was first discovered only a few years ago from a traditional fermented vegetable product in Japan. Some of the bacteria were capable of producing viscous sugar polymers tentatively identified as beta-glucan. This sugar polymer can protect bacterial cells against various environmental stresses and may have contributed to the longevity of the bacteria in the beers.

Dead yeast cells were discovered in the beer. Some of them appeared to be Saccharomyces cerevisiae or brewer’s yeast, while others resembled Dekkera yeast characteristic of lambic beer. No living yeast cells were found, but trace amount of yeast DNA could be detected from one of the bottles.

Continued research

As owner of the research results, the Government of Åland has decided that the scientific research will continue in collaboration with VTT.

- Hopefully continued research will lead to exciting new possibilities for food and health applications, said Jan-Ole Lönnblad, spokesperson for the Government of Åland.

The Government of Åland is also planning to establish a foundation for charitable purposes. This means that the various assets from the ship wreck, such as the research results of the beer, will be put into the foundation. Any future requests for finding a formula in order to replicate the beer will be handled by the foundation.

The ship sank around the 1840´s

The archaeological research of the wreck shows that the ship had the measures of approximately 20 x 6 meters. What caused her to sink is not known, but based on the marine archaeological studies the ship had been renovated shortly before she sunk. She is believed to have sunk in the 1840´s.

Analyses of the wood in the ship has shown that it was a ship built of spruce and pine, which would indicate that it was a vessel built according to Nordic shipbuilding traditions. The name of the ship is still unknown.

Apart from bottles of beer and champagne, the cargo also consisted of coffee, fruit and spices.


Presentation of Annika Wilhelmson in press conference on 10 May, 2012

PHOTOS by Antonin Halas:

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