Tuesday, September 30, 2008

A different kind of beer

Following yesterday's post on the wine industry, I thought I'd balance the books bottles by taking a look at a couple of interesting articles on beer.

According to ABC Science of Australia, beer has been made from yeast that's up to 45 million years old.

A tiny colony of yeast trapped inside a Lebanese weevil covered in ancient Burmese amber for up to 45 million years, has been brought back to life in barrels of beer.

Emeritus Professor Raul Cano of the California Polytechnic State University, originally extracted the yeast a decade ago, along with more than 2000 different kinds of microscopic creatures.

Today, Cano uses the reactivated yeast to brew barrels of pale ale and German wheat beer.

"You can always buy brewing yeast, and your product will be based on the brewmaster's recipes," says Cano. "Our yeast has a double angle: We have yeast no one else has and our own beer recipes."

The beer received good reviews at the Russian River Beer Festival and from other reviewers. The Oakland Tribune beer critic, William Brand, said the beer has "a weird spiciness at the finish," and The Washington Post said the beer was "smooth and spicy."

Part of that taste comes from the yeast's unique metabolism. "The ancient yeast is restricted to a narrow band of carbohydrates, unlike more modern yeasts, which can consume just about any kind of sugar," says Cano.

Eventually the yeast will likely evolve the ability to eat other sugars, which could change the taste of the beer. Cano plans to keep a batch of the original yeast to keep the beer true to form.

If this has a ring of deja vu, it could be because Cano's amber-drilling technique is the same one popularised in the movie Jurassic Park, where scientists extracted ancient dinosaur DNA from the bellies of blood-sucking insects trapped in fossilised tree sap.

Cano's original goal was to find ancient microscopic creatures that might have some kind of medical value, particularly pharmaceutical drugs.

Interesting! If I find myself out West, I'll have to look for a bottle of Professor Cano's beer to sample. Perhaps Stingray or Labrat, living closer to California and having research contacts there, could arrange a taste-test and post the results on their blog for us?

(I particularly liked the international flavor. Yeast from a Lebanese weevil, covered in Burmese amber, converted to beer in California? That's globe-trotting for you!)

The article above contained a link to another on ABC Science, concerning - of all things - chocolate beer.

People in Central America were drinking beverages made from cacao before 1000 BC, hundreds of years earlier than once thought, a new study shows.

These early cacao beverages were probably alcoholic brews, or beers, made from the fermented pulp of the cacao fruit.

These beverages were around 500 years earlier than the frothy chocolate-flavored drink made from the seed of the cacao tree that was such an important feature of later Mesoamerican culture.

But in brewing this primitive beer, or chicha, the ancient Mesoamericans may have stumbled on the secret to making chocolate-flavoured drinks, the paper says.

"In the course of beer brewing, you discover that if you ferment the seeds of the plant you get this chocolate taste," says John Henderson, a professor of anthropology at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and lead author of the paper.

"It may be that the roots of the modern chocolate industry can be traced back to this primitive fermented drink."

More information at the link.

I've never had a chocolate-based beer . . . but I'm willing to experiment. All in the interests of science, you know!


1 comment:

Stingray said...

Very interesting. I imagine it'll be tricky as hell to keep a starter of that original strain going without getting at least some genetic drift, but hopefully if anyone can pull it off, it's a full-fledged lab like that. I'd still bet that any subsequent batches will taste noticiably different from the original, but that's my every so sunny streak of optimisim kicking in. I'll have to nose around town and see if anybody has contacts. There's a surprisingly large and active homebrew club around, the Atom Mashers, and there's more than a few sets of PostHole Diggers attached to the membership names.

For the chocolate beer, I don't have access to cacao roots and the like, but the beer store does sell chocolate malt, and I've got more than a few recipes sitting around that call for it. Not quite the same, but hey, chocolate beer!