March 25, 2014 | 2
With craft brewing on the rise and many breweries tinkering with flavorings that range from the somewhat obvious (honey or citrus) to the eyebrow-raising (jalapeño, hemp, or even peanut butter cup) it was only a matter of time before someone stared a 35-million year old fossil in the face and thought, “would you make a good brew?” Well, the time has come, people. Now you can have a beer that is derived from a fossil icon. Really? Yes, really! Here’s how:
Jason Osborne, co-founder of Paleo Quest, a non-profit dedicated to advancing paleontology and geology, was daydreaming about how to engage the public in conversations about science. He made the natural connection between lively conversation and throwing back a cold one and wondered if he could sneak science in there somehow. Knowing that yeast, the organism responsible for turning sugar into alcohol, is everywhere, he wondered whether there was an undiscovered strain hanging out on fossils that could be roped into making beer.
To test his hypothesis, he enlisted a brewing scientist at Lost Rhino Brewing Company named Jasper Akerboom. Akerboom’s background is in microbiology but at some point in his career he decided it was more appealing to tinker with beer recipes at a place that values innovation and experimentation than it was to endure the academic grind. When Osborne asked him if it was possible to find yeast on the fossils PaleoQuest had dug up, Akerboom broke out his cotton swabs and petri dishes and began sampling.
If you are one of those people who wipes supermarket cart handles with disinfecting wipes or carries hand sanitizer around in your bag, the prospect of taking samples from dirty old fossils to make a beverage for human consumption might gross you out. For the rest of us who are comfortable with the microbes that coat virtually everything we come into contact with (and who outnumber us cell-for-cell, even on what we’d define as our own turf: the bodies we so arrogantly claim as our own), this is UNDENIABLY COOL. Yeast chilling on fossils being recruited to make beer? Uhm… that is so random and wacky and FUN! And if the reception that Osborne has gotten at lectures for various professional geology and paleontology groups is any indication, I am not the only one who shares this enthusiasm.
Osborne and Akerboom were hoping for a brewing revelation – an entirely new strain of wild yeast that would shake the brewing industry to its core and open up a whole new world of possibilities for craft brews. What they discovered turns out not to be an entirely new species, but rather a new subspecies of the yeast well known to breweries and wineries worldwide: Saccharomyces cerevisiae. They’re calling the new variant Saccharomyces cerevisiae var protocetus after the protocetid whale fossil it was swabbed from. Incidentally, the whale fossil is what drew me into this project as well, and I mean that literally. Last year, Osborne contacted me to obtain permission to use an illustration of mine on their label. Stay tuned for more on that front.
So when and where can you try this fossil brew, Bone Dusters Paleo Ale?! Lost Rhino Brewing Company in Ashburn, VA will be serving it out of their taproom any day now. They may also be offering it through distributors and are looking into supplying relevant professional meetings, assuming they don’t blast through the 650 gallons made in the first batch too quickly. But perhaps the best part about geeking out on Bone Dusters Paleo Ale is that the proceeds are being funneled into a fund dedicated to providing underprivileged schools with science equipment like microscopes and consumables. I’ll drink to that! Who’ll join me?
More on fermenting yeast and the hunt for new strains:
Wine Becomes More Like Whisky as Alcohol Content Gets High, by Jennifer Frazer
Secrets of the Universe: Past, Present, FutureX