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Beer bottles went down with the ship. A scuba-diving brewer brought them up and back to life.

Saint James Brewery New York in Holbrook is debuting a beer made entirely from yeast inside bottles found in the SS Oregon, which sank in 1886 near Fire Island.

Saint James Brewery New York in Holbrook was able to salvage beer bottles and recreate an ale from the SS Oregon, which sank off Fire Island in 1886. Jamie Adams said the English ale was recreated using yeast recovered from glass bottles his team of divers salvaged from the 133-year-old shipwreck.   (Credit: Barry Sloan)

When the British transatlantic luxury liner SS Oregon collided with a schooner off Fire Island in 1886 and sank, all passengers and crew were saved.

Lost along with the ship were wine, spirits and ales brought on board to serve passengers during their weeklong voyage across the Atlantic Ocean — until now.

Jamie Adams, a Holbrook brewer, says he has recreated an English ale using yeast recovered from glass bottles he and his team of divers salvaged from the 133-year-old shipwreck. 

On Saturday, the co-owner of Saint James Brewery New York and scuba diver is expected to debut the beer, called Deep Ascent, at the sixth annual New York Craft Brewers Festival in Albany.

“It's a classic English-style yeast strain,” Adams said.

For years, Adams and his team of divers worked the wreck of the Cunard ship, which sank 15 miles south of Moriches Inlet, coming up with broken bottles and fragments. 

Then, in 2017, one of the divers, Thomas McCarthy of the Freeport-based dive boat Tempest, brought Adams two intact chocolate-brown glass bottles retrieved from the vessel.

“Within a day, four more came in,” said Adams, 44.

Adams began cleaning the bottles that had been sitting on the seafloor, about 130 feet below the surface, and set out to see whether the yeast inside was alive more than a century later.

Yeast, a fungus, can survive more than a century given the right conditions, brewers said. Those include no light or oxygen infiltrating the bottles and temperatures being sufficiently cold.

“It’s certainly possible that there were microorganisms in the bottles that survived that many years. These are very resilient microbes. They can go dormant and survive some period of stress,” said Kaylyn Kirkpatrick, brewing specialist at Cornell University's Craft Beverage Institute in upstate Geneva. “If they are given the right nutrients and given the right environmental conditions, they can be brought back to life.”

Brews with history

In the world of craft beer, brewers are always searching for ways to set themselves apart from competitors by creating unique beers with a story behind them, and others have previously developed brews based on shipwrecked yeast.

In Australia, the brewery James Squire released its Wreck Preservation Ale in 2018 using a yeast strain the company said is 220 years old. It was taken from a bottle of beer recovered from a 1797 shipwreck near Tasmania.

In England in 1991, microbiologist Keith Thomas used an 1850 recipe and porter yeast salvaged from a ship that sank in the English Channel in 1825 to create Flag Porter and Bottle Green.

The Oregon sailed from Liverpool, England, on March 6, 1886, with almost 900 passengers and crew en route to New York City. The ocean liner was hours from reaching its destination when the schooner Charles H. Morse rammed its side in the fog on March 14, 1886.

The 521-foot, 7,375-ton liner, the fastest on the Atlantic in 1884, sank hours after the collision. All hands were lost on the schooner, but no one on the Oregon died, . as passengers were rescued by ships that came to Oregon's aid.

The Oregon's wreckage has been a popular diving site for years, including for Adams and his team.

“I’ve been diving the Oregon since I was 18 years old,” said Patrick Rooney, 56, one of the scuba divers on the team and co-captain with McCarthy of the Tempest. “We’ve been finding bottles through the years, but not sealed or corked. We finally happened to come upon this one area that had all the bottles.”

“We should do something with this,” Rooney said. “We were like, 'Let’s give it to Jamie and see what he comes up with.'”

Trial and error

Once Adams received the intact bottles, he said, he and a microbiologist friend set out to cultivate the yeast, hoping to bring it back to life. The pair pulled the yeast from the bottles and grew it on petri dishes over two months before there was a clean colony to work with.

“We took a single yeast cell and we turned it into billions of yeast cells, which we needed to make beer with,” Adams said.

In March of last year, Adams made a test batch of beer using 100 percent of the yeast strain reproduced from the yeast found in bottles inside the 133-year-old wreck. Adams had incorporated small portions of the Oregon yeast in other brews before, but this was his first attempt to create a beer using only the old yeast.

“It tasted like the sea, salty and briny,” he said. “You can taste the beer, but, really, all you taste was the sea.”

Rooney was among the few who tasted the earlier version of the brew.

“It was a hoppy beer. It was almost like a blonde ale,” Rooney said. “The taste stayed in your mouth a little bit, then it’s gone. It’s very clean.”

Experiment after experiment followed in the ensuing months until Adams found Deep Ascent.

Time to uncork

Last month, an upstate brewer, unaware of Adams’ project, had planned to recreate the English ale after one of the divers gave him a bottle salvaged from the Oregon.

When Adams learned of the plan in news accounts, he said, he called the brewer. Bill Felter of Serious Brewing in Howes Cave agreed not to use the Oregon yeast, Adams said.

This weekend, connoisseurs will get the chance to sample the beer, which Adams described as a classic English-style ale with fruit notes and a hint of caramel. The 7 percent alcohol by volume beer comes in a large bottle with a cork and wire cage.

Adams brewed 300 gallons of Deep Ascent, dividing it between bottles and kegs. The ale will be available at the brewery starting Tuesday, he said, and elsewhere from Montauk to Manhattan. Beer connoisseurs can also track down a bottle at some farmers markets.

Richard Vandenburgh, vice president of the New York State Brewers Association, said he was looking forward to tasting the brew.

“I don’t know how much of that flavor is attributed to this particular yeast, but I am excited to try it,” said Vandenburgh, founder and co-owner of Greenport Harbor Brewing Company in Greenport, one of more than 50 independent craft brewers on Long Island. “That makes the mystery of this so interesting.”

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