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Thursday, September 11, 2008

Ancient--and I mean Ancient--Yeast

Have you guys heard about Fossil Fuels Brewery? It's a company that got started this summer brewing beer with 25 million-year-old yeast. I kid you not:

A day before that movie opened in 1993, Cano announced that he had extracted DNA from an ancient Lebanese weevil entombed in amber, just as the fictional employees of InGen do with a mosquito to create their dino-amusement park. One newspaper account said the "achievement" refuted "the long-held view of many biologists that DNA of so great an age" couldn't be preserved.

But Cano was less interested in extinct reptiles than in Homo sapiens now roaming the earth. He next revivified ancient bacteria from the gut of an amber-encased bee and hoped to turn the strains into new antibiotics. That didn't work, and Cano, who has a doctorate in medical mycology, put his 1,200-specimen organism collection on the back shelf and returned to more fruitful microbial endeavors, like assessment of petroleum-degrading diversity in sand dunes and the bioinformatics of Lactobacillus acidophilus....

Of the science behind the suds, Cano says, "It's just like the Rip Van Winkle effect. What they are doing, they are remaining dormant -- the bacteria or the yeast and generally spores of some sort -- and then when you take them out of the amber, they reawaken and continue to reproduce. So they are alive."

Ultimately, he managed to culture the yeast and has actually brewed beer with it.
The result is Fossil Fuels Brewing Co., which ferments a yeast strain Cano found in a piece of Burmese amber dating from about 25 million to 45 million years ago. The company -- in which Cano is a partner, along with another scientist and a lawyer -- introduced its pale ale and German wheat beer with a party last month at one of the two Bay Area pubs where Fossil Fuels is made and served.
How's it taste? Beery types will not be surprised that it shares some qualities with style using older yeast strains:
William Brand, the Oakland Tribune beer critic, says the ancient yeast provides the wheat beer with a distinctively "clove-y" taste and a "weird spiciness at the finish." (The Washington Post's Style section's summer beer critic pronounced it "smooth and spicy, excellent with chicken strips.")

"I was impressed with the flavor that the yeast brought out," said Orvil Kirby, a patron who tried the wheat beer at Kelley Bros. Brewery, where it's made. "My first taste of it, I thought they might've added some cloves to the beer."
Unfortunately, you have to go to California to try it. Maybe the folks from Belmont Station will agree to take a road trip.

[Update: the brewery split a batch in two and fermented with their yeast and a standard yeast. This guy reports on the difference.]

1 comment:

Maureen Ogle said...

Jeff, take a look at Jay Brooks's coverage of this story.

http://www.brookstonbeerbulletin.com/dinosaur-beer/

Not, as usual, that I have any idea how to make this a live link....

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