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Oldest Beer in the World

Updated on May 9, 2011

Oldest Beer in the World

Last November, Finland thrilled champagne connoisseurs by offering samples of the best champagne in the world, discovered on an ancient sunken ship in the archipelago near the Finnish island of Aaland.

Now it’s the turn of the world’s beer lovers to ooh and aah over the oldest beer in the world that recovery divers also brought to the surface. 

This “oldest beer” story answers the ultimate question on every beer lover’s mind: what does 200-year-old beer taste like?

Oldest Beer in the World

Scientists at the Technical Research Centre of Finland are decipering the ancient recipe of the worlds oldest beer, found on a shipwreck at the bottom of the Baltic Sea. One goal is to find live yeast spores. This is one of 5 bottles found.
Scientists at the Technical Research Centre of Finland are decipering the ancient recipe of the worlds oldest beer, found on a shipwreck at the bottom of the Baltic Sea. One goal is to find live yeast spores. This is one of 5 bottles found. | Source

An Aroma of Linden Blossoms

Let’s first lay out the historical significance of this event so it can be seen in its proper venue.

In July, 2010, intrepid divers discovered a Napoleanic-era treasure of perfectly intact champagne bottles and beer dating to around 1800 laying on the bottom of the Baltic Sea.

In November, 2010, wine enthusiasts met at Mariehamn, the capital of Finland's island province of Aaland, to savor a unique bottle of Veuve-Clicquot the divers had salvaged from those frigid depths.

At that historic meeting, champagne expert Richard Juhlin carefully popped the cork, sipped a nose-wrinkling sample and mused that the bubbly treasure was similar to Chardonnay, with hints of “linden blossoms and lime peels.”

$135,000 Auction Price

The event triggered a tsunami of excitement amongst champagne experts, as they speculated that this unique bubbly could fetch an astounding $135,000 per bottle at an upcoming auction.

The divers made this historic find on a carvel-built schooner that rested at 50 meters depth.

As the story unfolds, the ancient dark waters had no intention of easily revealing the treasure stowed on that ship. The treasure laid there undisturbed since Napoleon crowned himself emperor of France in 1804.

Ancient Ship Discovered

The detective work to find the treasure fell to expert diver Christian Ekstroem. To add a dash of irony to this story, let’s  state that Ekstroem is also a manager of a pub for a micro-brewery called Stallhagen.

Using high tech equipment,  Ekstroem discerned the outline of a schooner on the bottom of the sea.

On investigation, the divers went down and finally sighted one mast and then another reaching toward the surface. As the divers descended lower, the murky waters revealed the ship rested on its keel. Visibility was barely two meters.

Now the divers, using powerful lamps, began surveying the wreck from the bow and checked the hull back to the stern. Except for a transom that fell away from the stern, the vessel showed remarkable integrity and was nearly intact.

Champagne Bottles Stacked on Straw

The divers first found a brick oven with a cooking pot. Next they discovered navigational instruments, a kettle and plates. But the best was yet to come.

Divers finally spotted a number of bottles lying on what appeared to be straw. They were thick bottles, the type made for storing sparkling wine long ago. All were stacked neatly inside the hull. Now the excitement rose amongst the divers. If these were indeed intact champagne bottles, the find would be astounding. The divers guessed that this boat, along with its contents, probably sailed these waters around the year 1800.

Historians agreed with that guess by speculating that the ship sank near the island of Björkör, after setting sail for either a trading house or possibly the St. Petersburg imperial court.

Divers Find World's Oldest Champagne and Beer

It Was Fantastic

Diver Christian Ekstroem  took one of the bottles to the surface diving boat.

“Let’s taste some seawater,” he recalled telling his mates. On the salvage ship, Ekstroem carefully pulled the cork and drank long and deep from the bottle, Then he announced: “This isn’t seawater. It was fantastic.”

But the divers weren’t done. Remember, this is a story about the world’s best beer.

Beer, Too, and It’s Drinkable

Lying next to the champagne were more old bottles of unknown content. The divers brought the first bottle up where it  exploded, unfortunately, pouring brown, foamy liquid on the deck.

By golly, it’s beer, remarked the diving crew. And it’s quaffable.

As a result, the government of Aaland had two birds in the hand. “We can now say that we have both the world’s oldest champagne and the world's oldest beer bottles in our possession,” Rainer Juslin of Aaland's provincial government told the Stockholm News.

168 Bottles Found

Before this discovery, the oldest drinkable beer ever verified rested in the Worthington White Shield Brewery in Burton-on-Trent in Staffordshire, England. The Ratliffe Ale was brewed  in 1869. The Aaland beer has this beat by nearly 70 years.

The diving crew hauled up 168 bottles. So how is that beer and champagne can remain bubbly and drinkable after 200 years?

Juhlin, the champagne expert, said that bottles lying at the bottom of the sea are kept better there than in the finest wine cellars because of pressure, darkness and temperature.

Bottles to be Auctioned

Aaland officials plan to mix the shipwrecked bottles with modern vintages and auction them to the highest bidder. The mingling of old and new will allow buyers to sample the historic find and also try a contemporary vintage.

The champagne auction plan is an effort to place Aaland on the tourist map and bring in a trove of visitors and their cash. Call the city fathers in Aaland for your bid number should you desire a unique bubbly with your wagyu beef and Russian caviar brunch.

What Does 200-Year-Old Beer Taste Like

As for the beer, it’s currently in the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland where scientists are trying to decipher the recipe. They hope to find a few live yeast spores and cultivate them to recreate the oldest beer in the world.

Now the big beer question: What does 200-year-old beer taste like?

An account in the Telegraph related how VTT scientist Arvi Vilpola had “the honourable task” of being one of the research team to sample the brew.

Sour, a Bit Salty and Burnt

“It was a little sour and you could taste the saltiness of it slightly,” Vilpola said.

VTT Senior Research Scientist Annika Wilhelmson said beer experts who tasted the brew related how it was acidic and had burnt flavors. This is a common occurrence with beer that sits too long in a cellar. It becomes over-aged and tastes different from when it was fresh.

Ekstroem’s Snorkle Sudz

Now we ponder the biggest question of all: What might a reincarnation of the world’s oldest beer be called?

If we’re looking to find a faithful description to reflect its briny provenance as a name, the choice is obvious: Ekstroem’s Snorkle Sudz.

And the brewery manager persona of diver Ekstroem would probably love to sell it.


Mariehamn, Finland


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    • Wesman Todd Shaw profile image

      Wesman Todd Shaw 7 years ago from Kaufman, Texas

      Thanks for the outstanding Hub, the great story, which I'd not heard, and celebrating beer!


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