What Does Shipwrecked 170-Year-Old Beer Taste Like?

Bottles found under the sea sampled

Yo ho ho and a bottle of beer. Scientists in Finland have analyzed two different beers recovered from an 1840’s shipwreck in the Baltic Sea to see if they could figure out how the beers were made.

Unlike some notable examples of booze that were stored in ideal conditions (if you need whisky to last a century, skip the wine cellar and go with in an insulated box in Antarctica), the bottles recovered from the shipwreck were never intended to be stored in a watery grave. And let’s face it, in general, beer does not age well. But when divers brought the beer bottles up from the shipwreck, one of them broke, and the divers reported that the liquid looked and tasted like beer. So instead of giving up on the beer bottles as a libation lost to time, scientists decided to run a chemical analysis on the remnants of the beer in two of the bottles to see what they were made of.

Sampling involved inserting needles into the corks sealing the bottles and taking some of the liquid out. Over the past 170 years seawater leached into the bottles, so even though the researchers could still smell the gold-colored liquid, and even take a small sip, they weren’t really tasting it as it was.

In the paper, the authors describe the beer as smelling “of autolyzed yeast, dimethyl sulfide, Bakelite, burnt rubber, over-ripe cheese, and goat, with phenolic and sulfury notes.” Yum.

But what would it have been like to drink? You know, when not diluted with seawater? Luckily, there was still enough beer in the bottles to make a chemical analysis of the flavors, and the researchers report that the flavor chemicals present were very similar to modern beers, but with a bit more of a rose flavor compound than we would normally be used to, probably formed by chemical reactions during the 17 decades of aging. Both beers were made with hops; one more than the other.

As for the shipwreck, archaeologists still don’t know where it was going or what the ship was called, only that in addition to the beer, it carried a cargo of over 150 champagne bottles. Cheers!