The Unlikely Tale of Two Breweries and One Beer Salvaged from an 1886 ShipwreckFebruary 26, 2019
By the time the SS Oregon set sail on her final transatlantic voyage on March 6, 1886, the luxury liner was the pride of the Cunard Line. The ship had won the Blue Riband for setting a speed record across the Atlantic just two years earlier. An ornate white-and-gold ceiling hung over the vast grand saloon decked out in satinwood and polished walnut. Hundreds of guests dined there each evening under the steady glow of incandescent bulbs powered by a cutting-edge dynamo installed by Nikola Tesla himself.
The air of opulence that drew so many passengers was ultimately the ship’s downfall. By the end of the 19th century, steel was already the preferred shipbuilding material, but the SS Oregon’s architects had opted to construct a hull of cheaper iron and spend the savings on lavish decorations. When a schooner collided with the SS Oregon at 4:30 a.m. on March 14, it tore a hole in the hull large enough for a horse-drawn carriage to trot through. All but one of the 852 passengers were safely evacuated as the ship sunk to the ocean floor within a matter of hours. It rests there to this day, 18 nautical miles from Fire Island’s coastline in New York.
“I’d been diving this shipwreck for 20 years,” says Jamie Adams, owner of Saint James Brewery in Holbrook. Over the years, he retrieved all sorts of barnacle-encrusted artifacts, including broken shards of old beer bottles. In 2015, he got an idea. "I thought I could brew beer with this yeast if I could just find an intact bottle, so we started hunting for them.”
Although the wreck’s proximity to shore has made it a popular dive spot, searching through the interior requires a highly technical level of skill and no small amount of risk. Enclosed spaces can harbor all sorts of unpleasant surprises and the rusted, decaying bones of the ship are especially fragile.
“Dear friends of mine have passed away while diving on this wreck, so it’s definitely a serious endeavor,” Adams says. “We had to dig through quite a few layers and access parts of the ship where most people wouldn’t have the ability to go.”
It took two years of diving expeditions for Adams and his team to recover bottles of beer from the wreck. Seawater had trickled in, rendering the English ales undrinkable, but the yeast inside was still clinging to life. Unfortunately, more than a century of undersea evolution had left a mark.
“The yeast is a living organism and its job is to survive, so it adapted to being underwater,“ Adams says. “Our job was to essentially train it to get it back to doing what it was doing in the first place, which was to make really good beer.”
Adams isn’t the first brewer to attempt this feat—an Australian brewery released a porter-ale based on yeast recovered from a 220-year-old wreck last year—but the process still presented a serious challenge. Refining the yeast involved months of plating colonies on petri dishes in a lab and painstakingly separating out uncontaminated strains. When the team finally managed to isolate the desirable yeast strain, Adams called in a microbiologist to extract a single cell to launch their final yeast colony.
“In the very first test batch we made in 2018, the beer had a distinctly English-style ale flavor to it,” Adams says. “There’s a caramel maltiness. There’s a fruitiness that the yeast adds and also a bit of a nice, complimentary mild hop flavor.”
This is becoming a cut-throat industry. It’s rarer and rarer that two breweries work out their problems in a way that’s amicable to everybody.”
Saint James Brewery was gearing up to declare victory and release the results of their salvaged yeast beer when things got a little complicated. On February 15, 2019, Serious Brewing Company sent out a press release announcing that they had been working with yeast recovered from the very same wreck. It turns out that one of the divers who had been working with Adams also happened to frequent Serious Brewing Company. On one of his visits, he mentioned that he had recovered an intact bottle from the SS Oregon and asked owner Bill Feltner if he might want to try making beer from it.
“We jumped at the opportunity. It’s not too often you get to have a 130-year-old bottle of beer,” Feltner says. “We opened it on Valentine’s Day and did a taste test. It was pretty nasty. It kind of smelled like barleywine and cider vinegar.”
The excited brew team sent samples over to the biotechnology students at the State University of New York at Cobleskill to study. They also sent out a press release, which went viral. Before long, the microbrewery’s name was popping up as far away as Japan and Australia. Feltner was thrilled until he opened one particular letter from Saint James Brewery.
“Essentially it was a cease and desist,” Feltner says. He called up Adams, who explained the situation. “Brewers kind of have an unwritten code. In good faith, we said we’d back away. We have a gentlemen’s agreement.”
Although Feltner was understandably disappointed, he insists that there are no hard feelings. As small, local breweries, both feel that it is their responsibility to support one another. Adams has stated that they plan to work on a collaboration using the shipwreck yeast in the future.
“This is becoming a cut-throat industry. It’s rarer and rarer that two breweries work out their problems in a way that’s amicable to everybody,” Adams says. “I’d just like to keep the spirit of cooperation alive.”
In the meantime, Adams plans to finally release SeaKing on March 9 at the New York State Brewers Association. The beer is the first of a planned line of ales made in the classic English style, in honor of its origin.
“We’re going to raise awareness by naming all of the bottles after the divers that recovered it,” Adams says. “This wreck means a lot to the people of Long Island. We want to combine that with the history of our area and an appreciation for the people who made this project what it is.”