Schoharie County

SUNY Cobleskill lab site of effort to re-create beer from 1886 shipwreck

Bottle is uncorked, tasted and analyzed as students try to extract any living yeast
Bill Felter, owner of Serious Brewing, and SUNY Cobleskill professor Lynda McMasters-Schuyler examine a circa-1880 beer.
Bill Felter, owner of Serious Brewing, and SUNY Cobleskill professor Lynda McMasters-Schuyler examine a circa-1880 beer.

COBLESKILL — When the SS Oregon sank off Long Island in 1886, the people aboard aboard were saved. But all the beer was lost.

A diver who recently brought three bottles up from Davy Jones’ locker gave one to a Cobleskill craft brewer who is now hoping to re-create the recipe so he can brew up a batch.

Students, faculty and Serious Brewing Company owner Bill Felter uncorked the bottle Thursday and extracted samples for genetic testing on the yeast, should any of the micro-organisms still be alive. Felter and a few others gave the beer a sniff test and then conducted a tasting.

“It was nasty,” said Felter, who swirled and swallowed a few drops from a medicine dropper — with no ill effects as of Friday.

“It smelled like a barleywine,” he added. “It was kind of like a vinegar-cider smell. The color was like a Bass ale.”

What brand and what style of beer it was is difficult to tell this early, Felter said. But it was an English ship sailing from England to New York City.

“I would think coming back from England it would probably be an English beer,” he said.

If Felter can get a useful sample of yeast, he’s going to research the breweries of the era and their recipes and try to make a palatable approximation the beer in the bottle.

“We’re hoping that there is something that’s still living in there that we’re able to re-create,” he said. Of course, he allowed, “It may be a total dud.”

Whether or not it works, the plan to revive 133-year-old yeast is plausible. There is direct precedent: 220-year-old beer recovered from a shipwreck off Tasmania provided viable yeast that made its modern debut last year in Wreck Preservation Ale, brewed by Australia’s James Squire Craft Brewers.

SUNY Cobleskill biotechnology professor Lynda McMasters-Schuyler, who opted not to taste the SS Oregon’s beer but sniffed its bouquet, said the project is a teaching experience for undergraduate students as well as a fascinating dive into history.

“Isn’t this cool? I was so excited to do this,” she said. “Hopefully we’ll get something out of it.”

If any yeast is alive, the students will isolate it, grow it, and compare its DNA to yeast used by modern brewers.

“If we can get it to the point that we do have different yeast strains in there, and they existed then and don’t exist today, and I can get that to [Felter], that would be really cool.”

McMasters-Schuyler also is involved with research on another critical ingredient of beer: hops. 

Schoharie County and surrounding regions once held the greatest concentration of hops cultivation in the state if not the Northeast, she said, before Prohibition killed the market and disease killed the plants. She’s now hunting for heritage plants that have survived without human cultivation for decades and might provide the basis for a hardier commercial crop.

“I’m calling them feral hops,” she said. “Can we take the heritage/feral hop that’s managed to make it through the past hundred years and make it something special? New York state really needs its own characteristic hops.”

McMasters-Schuyler has begun to appreciate the finished product, too.

“I’m becoming a beer connoisseur because I’ve been involved in hops for the past year and a half,” she said. “Once you start tasting these craft beers … part of the excitement is hearing from these craft brewers, what they’re doing and what they put into it.”

Felter is one of the newest of the hundreds of craft brewers who’ve set up operation in recent years in New York state. His seven-barrel brewery in the town of Cobleskill opened 13 months ago.

One of his customers is a New Jersey SCUBA diver who recovered the three bottles of beer from a forward section of the SS Oregon, a popular dive site 18 miles off the Fire Island, the barrier island south of Long Island.

Serious Brewing Company brews a few other European-style beers — a Belgian stout, an Irish red, and Belgian wheat — so a retro English brew would be in good company.

“We’re still kind of keeping our fingers crossed,” he said Friday. “It’ll be pretty incredible to get a batch out of one or two cells.”

The SS Oregon was one of the finest vessels of its day when built for Liverpool-New York service in 1883. With an iron hull and coal-fired steam engines, it set speed records for the trans-Atlantic route. It was also one of the first ships with incandescent lights, courtesy of dynamos built by Thomas Edison’s precursor company to General Electric. Edison is said to have personally congratulated a young employee named Nikola Tesla when the future engineering legend made an emergency repair on them in 1884.

Before dawn March 14, 1886, the SS Oregon slammed into a schooner. The smaller vessel sank immediately with all hands lost, but the Oregon remained afloat long enough for the 852 passengers and crew aboard to be saved, despite a far-inadequate number of lifeboats, as nearby vessels responded to assist after daybreak. Some accounts indicate a single passenger drowned in the evacuation.

The tops of the ship’s tall masts — a holdover from the rapidly ending era of sailing ships, added to the Oregon for emergency use — reportedly were visible above the surface for several cycles of the tides after the ship settled on the bottom 130 feet below.

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