In Jurassic Park, fictional scientist John Hammond creates dinosaurs using DNA from an insect fossilized in amber, much to the dismay of cynical know-it-all Dr. Ian Malcolm, who accuses the park founder of "wielding genetic power like a kid that's found his dad's gun." Real-life scientist Raul Cano—who first isolated DNA from an insect preserved in a 45-million-year-old chunk of amber only days before the film debuted in theaters—wielded genetic power more like a kid who found the key to his dad's liquor cabinet. Cano decided that using the DNA to make yeast was a better idea than reviving 40-foot prehistoric reptiles, which is how the world ended up with Fossil Fuels Saison, an ale made from ancient yeast from the Eocene Epoch in the Cenozoic Era.
Shortly after making his discovery in 1992, the real-life John Hammond partnered with microbiologist Chip Lambert, and the two began using the yeast preserved in 45-million-year-old Burmese amber to homebrew beer under the name Fossil Fuels Brewing Company. After 20 years of experimenting, the two decided to get more serious, partnering with Ian Schuster at Schubros Brewery to start refining their brews and release them to the public. The first bottles of Fossil Fuels Saison will be available in December with limited availability.
MUNCHIES caught up with Cano, Lambert, and Schuster to discuss beer, ancient yeast, and just how good our chances are of seeing a real-life Jurassic Park in our lifetime.
MUNCHIES: Could fossilized DNA ever be used to bring back an extinct animal? Chip Lambert: There is certainly speculation that DNA recovered from the wooly mammoth is sufficient to identify the complete genome of the animal. Whether these sequences could be successfully inserted in stem cells, grown, and differentiated is the subject of active research and bioethics debates. However, there are no sequences sufficiently intact to even consider this with the ancient multicellular organisms.
Where did you find the yeast? Chip Lambert: The spore was trapped in a piece of amber mined from a Burmese deposit that has been dated to be 45 million years old. The exterior surface of a random piece was rigorously sterilized, then frozen in liquid nitrogen, shattered, and the fragments distributed into microbiological growth media. The right fragment matched the right medium that supported the germination of the yeast spore that happened to be in that fragment.
How Will The Yeast Be Used to Make Beer? Raul Cano: Just like you would use any other yeast to make beer. The yeast would use the wort's sugars and ferment them to provide ethanol and carbon dioxide. Some of the products of their metabolism would impart unique flavors, as well. There is absolutely nothing harmful by using this yeast or any other ancient yeast strain in making beer.
Ian Schuster: Raul and Chip are the master husbanders of the yeast, and deliver us these cartoonishly large flasks of the yeast suspended in distilled water. We then "pitch" that liquid into the fermenters, which starts the action. From there, the yeast starts to eat all the sugars in the pre-beer liquid that brewers call "wort". This is when the yeast starts to produce alcohol, carbon dioxide, and all those "beery" flavors. This is also the stage where the ancient yeast really starts to differentiate itself from its modern descendants.
The ancient yeast ferments violently for a couple days, generates intense heat—which we have to cool down so they don't work themselves to death—and then rapidly go right to sleep. With standard ale yeast, they'll do their job for around two weeks before finishing and drifting off to sleep. But these guys work hard and sleep often. We have to keep rousing them to keep the fermentation going—so they are a bit of a high-maintenance yeast to deal with.
How Did The Partnership With Schubros Come to be? Ian Schuster: I met a friend of Chip's while I was attending a financial investment road show. He told me he knew someone who possessed ancient brewer's yeast. I was skeptical, but too curious to not follow up. Ten months ago, I met Chip in person. Chip and Raul had been trying to make commercial batches of beer with this yeast for nearly two decades, but were still looking for the right brewing partner to really bring it to market. They were searching for a partner with creativity, the desire to push boundaries, and the kind of obsession with cleanliness that people studying microbes truly appreciate.
What Does The Beer Taste Like? Ian Schuster: The yeast itself imparts really different flavors depending on the temperature you ferment it at, and the type and amount of barley, wheat, and other sugars you give it. In this Saison, it has a really unique grapefruit taste and aroma. But with other test brews, we've been able to generate some clove-y, spicy, and earthy flavors, as well. In short, it's surprisingly versatile. That's why we are excited about developing future beer styles with it, as well. We are currently pretty close to developing a Wheat Ale recipe, and recently started playing with some Pale Ale and Stout recipes.
How Much Will It Cost and How Can People Get it? Ian Schuster: Fossil Fuels Saison will likely sell for around $25 for a 750ml bottle, but we need to get a tighter grip on all its unique ingredients and yeast maintenance costs before I can finalize a price. The ancient yeast in Fossil Fuels Saison is very unique and unusual, which means the yeast maintenance steps we take are much more involved than normal—there's really no room for error working with such rare yeast.
This article was edited for length and clarity.
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