Really, Really Old Beer

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One of the highlights of my time living in San Francisco was the 9 months I worked part time at Anchor Brewing. I learned more about beer in those nine months than in all the time previous and since, and was fascinated by the story of their Sumerian beer project, an attempt in 1988 to recreate man’s first professionally brewed beer based on a recipe found on some tablets from Mesopotamia in something called “Hymn to Ninkasi.” It was a one time brew, and some of the brewers and other long-timers talked about the experience as an interesting experience, but said that the beer wasn’t anything outstanding.

Fossil Fuels Beer has gone more ancient, not in terms of recipe, but in ingredients. Raul Cano, the first microbiologist to reanimate microorganisms that had been trapped in amber for millions of years (think Jurassic Park but way smaller), thought that one of the things he’d reanimated looked a lot like brewer’s yeast. Guess where this story is going.

Cano and his partner teamed up with brewer Peter Hackett to try to make a beer from with this ancient yeast, and the results were dramatic.

Hackett was prepared to pour the batch down the drain if it tasted awful. But he discovered that the flavor of the resulting ale was unique, and not in a bad way. It was light and crisp with a citrusy, gingery tang. It was definitely worth exploring further.

The brewer began experimenting with the ancient strain. He indulged its idiosyncratic behavior, letting it ferment for an extra month in a cold storage tank. He modified the hops, a plant that adds a characteristic bitterness to beer, to complement the flavor imparted by the yeast.

Cano’s Saccharomyces coupled with Hackett’s know-how to yield a very tasty libation, which is now made and distributed under the name Fossil Fuels Brewing Company. “We won the lottery,” Hackett says. “It’s such a random thing. A yeast cell, captured in amber, found by a mad scientist. For it to perform well, for it to perform uniquely … I wouldn’t have bet on it.”

I can’t wait to try it.


Brian Spears's first collection of poetry, A Witness in Exile, is now available through Louisiana Literature Press, and at his personal website. He is Senior Poetry Editor at The Rumpus. More from this author →