A FINNISH brewery has recreated a Belgian beer from bottles that sank 170 years ago on a merchant ship in the Baltic Sea, giving connoisseurs a chance to taste the tipple of their great-great-great-grandfathers.
The brew was reproduced thanks to elaborate research by Finnish and Belgian scientists who teamed up after the wreckage was discovered off Finland's Aaland Islands in 2010.
Divers exploring 12 metres (40 feet) down found only five bottles of beer next to 145 champagne bottles – confirmed as the world's oldest drinkable bubbly – in the long-lost wreck.
“Contrary to the champagne, the beer seemed not to be drinkable,” a team of scientists from Belgium's Louvain University said in a statement.
In fact, with the help of modern chemistry and a bit of ingenuity they were proved wrong.
The result “gives us a notion how a luxury beer tasted in the early 1800s,” said Jan Wennstroem, CEO of Finland's Stallhagen brewery.
The transformation, however, required serious detective work. It was assumed that the ship had sunk sometime in the 1840s but no one knew its name nor where it sailed from – meaning the beer's provenance was a mystery.
Technicians at Finland's VTT Technical Research Centre in Espoo, outside Helsinki, concluded that it most probably had been brewed in Belgium.
Enter a Belgian team of scientists from the University of Louvain, tasked with finding the exact ingredients and determining how the ancient beer had been brewed.
“The biggest challenge has been to decide what type of microorganisms to use to make this type of beer,” microbiologist Guido Aerts told reporters.
– Sweeter than modern beer –
Many brewers will say that yeast is the most important ingredient, determining a beer's unique flavor. But yeast comes in thousands of varieties and finding out which one was used in this instance was a particular challenge.
“The yeast culture used to produce this beer was 170 years old and not easy to identify, as it had been contaminated with other substances,” Aerts said.
Researchers, however, were fairly sure it was a finer beer, given that it was transported in bottles and not in more economical barrels.
Now the brew is available in all its ancient glory, significantly sweeter than modern beer and with an alcohol content of 4.5 per cent.
The Finnish brewery has produced 120,000 bottles of what it has aptly named Stallhagen 1843, which CEO Wennstroem described as “refined and subtle”.
The firm has also created a high-priced “special edition” in finely crafted bottles, initially producing 1,000. The first one went for 850 euros ($1,000) at an auction in September.
Wennstroem told reporters that some of the proceeds will go towards continued research of the wreck, still on the sea bottom, as “there will surely be other treasures in addition to those that we have already found.”
Other funds will go towards public projects.
The wreck legally belongs to the authorities of the Aaland Islands, a Swedish-speaking archipelago attached to Finland but with an autonomous local government.
Aaland authorities will “use these funds for research of underwater archaeology and maritime history as well as improving the environment of the Baltic Sea,” its Culture Minister Johan Ehn said in a statement.