Jurassic Pub: Truly Ancient Ale

Mad scientists extracting ancient DNA molecules from fossilized amber, resurrecting long dead beasts and unleashing them on an unsuspecting modern world as part of some half-baked, twisted commercial scheme. Hollywood horsepucky you say? Think again my friend. Truth, you see, can be even stranger than fiction. A certain hybrid, made possible by frightening science, has recently come to my attention: The Tyrannosaurus Rat. No, not the ones living in the sewers under Manhattan; I’m talking about a beer, one unlike any the world has ever seen.

The first batch was brewed in 2006, when Peter Hackett of northern California brewpub Stumptown teamed up with famed mad scientist (and real-life inspiration for the Michael Crichton novel Jurassic Park) Raul Cano of California Polytechnic to brew a hybridized version of his Rat Bastard pale ale that is nothing short of an abomination. What was so different about this simple pale ale? It was brewed with yeast that had lain dormant for 45 million years, buried deep in amber – fossilized tree sap – from an age before man, at the dawn of modern mammals.

Cano had generated a great deal of interest and controversy in the mid nineties by claiming to have cultured microorganisms (thousands in all) from the remnants of amber. Among the many species in his catalog were several strains of yeast closely related to Saccharomyces cerevisiae-he had found ancient ale yeast and brought it back to life! Cano never intended his research to create tasty beverages. In fact he had started his company, Ambergene, with the far loftier goal of synthesizing new antibiotics from the microorganisms, but the company later folded by 1997 when the investors (among them several major pharmaceutical companies) lost patience in the lack of progress. The only marketable idea that seems to have come from the venture was when a homebrewer on Cano’s staff decided to culture up some of the ancient yeast and brew a series of beers from it: T-Rex Lager, Stegosaurus Stout, Jurassic Amber Ale, and Ancient Ale. These beers were served at the wedding of Cano’s daughter, as well as the wrap party for Jurassic Park 2: The Lost World.

So how do you bring bugs back to life after 45 million years? Many microorganisms (including yeast strains) actually go into a state of deep hibernation when they run out of the things necessary to sustain life. If they are preserved from exposure to the elements, say by being trapped in virtually air- and water-proof fossilized amber, they can apparently stay alive and hibernate…for a very long time. This makes it relatively simple (I’m sure!) to reconstitute them; simply sanitize the bejeezus out of the outside surface of the amber (Cano used disinfectant, ultrasound, ethanol, and fire) to prevent modern contaminants from interfering with the sample, then dip it in liquid nitrogen to make it brittle, break it into many small pieces, and then stick it in a solution of microorganism chow and other nutrients and wait. The controversy I spoke of wasn’t so much over the risk of culturing some sort of andromeda strain from the amber or other ethical concerns, but more about the risk of modern contaminants. Most of the bacteria and other microorganisms Cano found were actually closely related to modern species, and considering 95% of modern bacteria has not been identified, let alone studied by scientists, it was hard to say whether Cano’s bugs were coming from inside the amber or outside. Even Cano initially thought the cultures growing in his petri dishes were contaminations that were keeping him from studying the dead bugs he was looking for, but with time this hypothesis changed, he isolated thousands of species, and his work was peer reviewed, replicated on several occasions by other teams, and eventually published in the journal Science.

And what about the beers? Cano’s Fossil Fuels Brewing Company is currently working with two northern California brewers: Hackett at Stumptown Brewery is producing a pale ale, and Joe Kelley at Kelley Brewing makes what can be referred to as a “Belgian” hefeweizen. Neither are available outside of northern California at the moment, but reports from the field indicate that the yeast features clove and other unique phenolics that gives the hefeweizen a bit of a “Belgian” feel. The strain has also been described by hacket as having a “gingery” tang, and several sources make mention of smooth fruity notes, citrusy but not overly sour. Either beer appears to be a must-have if you can get one.

So when will we get it on the east coast? Hard to say. They are expanding draft offerings (with presumably fake amber chunks in the tap handles) throughout California as we speak, and are in talks with contract brewers to ramp up production of bottles for wider distribution, but considering the fledgling brewing company has taken nearly three years to get this far, there’s no telling how long that will take.

So in the meantime, us Punks will have to wait (or pull together funds for that Pacific Coast Highway road trip we’ve always wanted to take) and see where this truly unique yeast will show up next. Reports indicate that Joe Kelley of Kelley Brewing would like to see it in a scottish wee heavy, so you’ll likely find it there before you find it at our local Sunset Grill and Tap, unfortunately.

If you want to listen to me geek out on this truly astonishing yeast strain from the perspective of a knowledgable homebrewer, don’t forget to check out my Technical Addendum.

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