Jurassic Beer

Innovation by | Nov 2008 | Issue #22

Yeast, now with Eocene epoch, T-rex strength!

Modern technology is helping beer lovers enjoy their favorite quaff made from some very old ingredients. Ancient yeast that was found encased and preserved in a piece of amber was extracted by a team of scientists, cultivated and then used to ferment beer.

California-based Fossil Fuels Brewing Co. has recently released a wheat beer fermented with a yeast strain that dates back to the Eocene epoch (a period of the Cenozoic Era), about 45 million years ago.

“The history of the yeast literally dates back before the dawn of man, to a time when the earth was warm, tropical and teeming with life,” says Lewis “Chip” Lambert, a scientist from Fremont, Calif. He has partnered with Dr. Raul Cano, of California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, brewmasters Peter Hackett, of Stumptown Brewery in Guerneville, and Joe Kelley, of Kelley Bros. They brewed in Manteca, along with attorney Scott Bonzell, of Oakland, to create the beer, which is, if nothing else, sure to be a great conversation starter.

“During this time, a snapshot of biological life was trapped by tropical tree sap,” Lambert adds. “Over the course of millions of years, the sap hardened into amber, which preserved and protected its contents. That is, until Dr. Cano, using amber obtained from locations around the world, isolated and revived a bacterium, which had lain dormant in the gut of an encased bee for approximately 40 million years.”

In the course of their work, Lambert and Cano also isolated a few yeast strains that resembled what is now known as Saccharomyces cerevisiae, the yeast typically used in brewing—except this new-old yeast originated a long way back in the evolutionary chain. In short, they discovered a long-lost ancestor of today’s brewer’s yeast.

“Yeast mutate through time,” says Kelley, who was the second brewer—following Hackett—to use the yeast in a beer. “A lot of how [yeast] change depends on where they are, the environment and what they are eating. This yeast has not mutated for 45 million years—a snapshot, if you will, of its environs during that period.”

Kelley says the yeast was propagated using a single cell. But it has the strength of a Tyrannosaurus rex.

“[I believe] this yeast’s clove characteristic will come through to dominate any grain recipe it’s used with,” Kelley says. “Yeast today are not that dominant. We as brewers can affect the flavor characteristics of a yeast with our grain recipe. The wheat I brewed used 60-percent wheat, and the clove characteristics tastes like I used 90 percent.”

Because it is a wild yeast strain, the clove characteristics and other flavors it imparts to the beer tend to hint toward Belgian styles. But Kelley says the flavor is not that easy to pin down.

“The wheat beer has a very strong clove nose. The first swallow, I taste cinnamon and apples along with the clove,” Kelley says. “As you drink through, I pick out hints of several other flavors that I can’t quite identify. The finish is truly unique; hard to describe other than saying you will be trying to decide what Belgian-style beer you just swallowed. It has a very clean and sudden finish.”

Kelley says he plans on using the yeast in other recipes. The next one up is a Wee Heavy. He also has plans to brew with three other completely different yeast strains that were discovered in similar circumstances from other parts of the world. “As a brewer, I’m truly blessed to have an opportunity like this,” Kelley says. “It is truly mind blowing!”