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Shipwreck beer saga takes unexpected turn

Shipwreck beer saga takes unexpected turn

Cobleskill brewer surprised to learn Long Island brewer already working to re-create beverage from 1886 shipwreck; future collaboration planned
Shipwreck beer saga takes unexpected turn
These four bottles of circa-1886 beer were recovered from the wreck of the SS Oregon off Long Island.
Photographer: Courtesy of Jamie Adams

COBLESKILL — The story of a craft brewer and college students in Cobleskill using DNA sampling to try to duplicate beer recovered from an 1886 shipwreck drew worldwide attention last week.

Among the most interested, and surprised, readers was a Long Island craft brewer operating only a few miles from where the wreck of the SS Oregon sits under 130 feet of water.

As it turns out, the Long Island brewer is a veteran scuba diver who had been down to the Oregon repeatedly over the years, looking for the beer. And after his dive team recovered a few bottles, he cultivated the yeast himself and used it to develop a beer that he was getting ready to market when he read about the similar upstate project.

After the Long Island brewer got over his surprise, he sought to protect his product. After the Cobleskill brewer got over his surprise, he agreed to honor the request.

The two then talked some more and agreed to collaborate on a future beer using descendants of the 133-year-old micro-organisms recovered from the ocean bottom.

“He’s the legal owner of the yeast,” Bill Felter, owner of Serious Brewing Company in Cobleskill, said Thursday.

“We just got off the phone. We will be doing a collaboration together and he will be allowing the college to work with the yeast. So there’s no ill-will among anybody.”

Felter and Jamie Adams of Saint James Brewery in Holbrook, Long Island, both said the booming craft brewing industry is still enough of a community that there is a sense of camaraderie among the players, and that helped end the brief, awkward standoff. 

“But things are getting more competitive, unfortunately,” Adams said Thursday. “You want to be able to clearly define what your brand is and what your rights are.”

Adams said learning that Felter was a like-minded aficionado also running a farm brewery using local ingredients helped seal the deal.

“He was excited about it for the history of it,” Adams said of Felter’s shipwreck beer vision. “He was thinking on a higher level than simply producing a product that people want to buy.

“That’s what we want to do here.”

What beers the two brewers will jointly produce hasn’t been discussed. Saint James has specialized in Belgian-style beers, but Adams hopes to complement it with a full line of English beer — bitter, porter, stout and pale ale. 

“You name it, we want to brew it.”

The debut brew using yeast descended from the SS Oregon is a pale ale tentatively named SeaKing New York that St. James will first pour at the New York State Craft Brewers Conference in Colonie on March 7-9.

DUELING BREWING

The odd situation arose when a member of the dive team commissioned by Adams gave a bottle of beer to Felter a couple of years after the dive. Before he knew the full picture, Felter told The Daily Gazette last week, he was excited about the possibility of getting viable yeast from it, researching where it came from, and re-creating beer from a bygone era.

Serious Brewing already was partnered with SUNY Cobleskill through the START-UP NY program, which pairs schools and new businesses to benefit education and economic development. So enlisting the college's help with the beer science was a natural step.

The college used the project as an undergraduate teaching exercise; students and faculty uncorked the ancient brewski on Valentine’s Day and extracted samples in an attempt to identify and propagate any yeast cells still alive.

Felter took a taste and pronounced it vile. (Adams thinks that might be due to saltwater infiltration.)

The college said Thursday it would continue the project. Its interest is not economic but academic — it sees this as a unique and valuable applied learning experience.

Earlier Thursday afternoon, literally minutes before he and Adams agreed on a path forward, Felter seemed a little stunned by the whole experience: a whirlwind flurry of interest as far away as Japan, then the sudden change of narrative surrounding the swag from one of the finest ocean liners of its day.

Felter said Adams' long and dogged pursuit of a shipwreck beer had been completely off his radar.

Adams explained that his marketing plan hadn’t been ready before the widespread publicity surrounding the Cobleskill project erupted.

Also, there had not been the additional attention generated by a university collaboration to extract and cultivate the yeast — he had done it himself.

“I can do 99 percent of what I needed to do,” said Adams, describing himself as self-taught, reading and learning on his own. He already had experience with multiple and obscure yeast strains, due to his reliance on local ingredients. There hasn’t been much in the way of hops cultivated on Long Island, he said, so he relies more heavily on fruits and yeasts to flavor his beer than many brewers do.

Things are looking up for Saint James, Adams said. More hops are being grown on Long Island and the availability of sturdier cans or bottles may make it possible to package his beers in 12- and 16-ounce containers for individual sale. They’re a little too strongly carbonated to safely package in thin-wall containers.

Adams said he’s also looking forward to working with Serious Brewing, and was glad the two brewers could settle the matter amicably: “Talking and level-headed communication” can accomplish a lot when done sincerely, he said.

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