Drink in the Past: Prehistoric Yeast Extracted Jurassic Park-Style From Amber is the Key Ingredient in a Modern-Day Beer
Remember that iconic scene in Jurassic Park in which scientists extract dinosaur DNA from a mosquito that became encased in amber millions of years ago? This concept made the entire blockbuster movie franchise possible. What if I told you, however, that the science behind reviving ancient organisms from the DNA in amber is real and proven effective? And what if I told you that instead of bringing back the dinosaurs—because we know how that would end—scientists are bringing back something much more useful? That's exactly what one biology professor did. The yeast he pulled from hardened ancient amber serves as the key ingredient to his appropriately named amber ale, which lets people literally drink in the past.
What Is Amber?
Amber is a deep, rich, gold-colored semi-precious gemstone that has been highly prized since antiquity. Unlike many other gems, amber is organic. It's just fossilized tree resin or sap that has hardened under the pressure and heat caused by the build-up of layers of Earth. Naturally, other materials became easily trapped in the sap and remained there as the resin fossilized into amber. Often, it was leaves and other plant materials that got stuck in the tacky resin, but animals and insects were not immune to the stickiness. Gemologists call these bits of plants and animals found in fossilized amber "inclusions." Scientists call them "opportunities."
Paleontologists Love Amber
For paleontologists, amber can be an invaluable find. The gooey tree resin traps plant and animal material that might otherwise have been lost. By extracting the inclusions in amber and studying them, scientists are given the chance to peer into the prehistoric past. Insects, spiders, feathers, flowers, leaves, animal fur, frogs, bacteria, small crustaceans, and other microscopic material have all been found within fossilized amber. One of the unique properties of amber is that it's great at preserving DNA. Although scientists have yet to find a mosquito preserved in amber that is plump from drinking dinosaur blood, they have theorized that DNA encased in amber could remain intact for as long as 100 million years, and although we do not have the ability to clone dinosaurs from this DNA, researchers have been able to revive microorganisms found in the amber. Like yeast.
In the 1990s, a biology professor from California Polytechnic State University named Raul Cano was conducting research on amber samples found in Myanmar. Sealed within the amber was yeast, single-cell microorganisms belonging to the fungal family. Dr. Cano successfully extracted the yeast organisms and brought them back to life, a feat that earned him international praise and recognition. There was an actual scientist doing what the characters in Jurassic Park did, albeit on a smaller scale and with a less intimidating organism.
Expanding His Research
Dr. Cano continued his study of amber-encased yeast, extracting 45-million-year-old microorganisms from amber not only from Myanmar but from Central and North America, too. While the fictional researchers in Jurassic Park used their methods to clone dinosaurs and open the world's most dangerous theme park, Dr. Cano had his sights set on a goal that was less ambitious but every bit as noble: beer.
Yeast is one of humanity's most helpful microorganisms. When yeast ferments, it converts the sugars and carbohydrates into carbon dioxide and alcohol. In baking, yeast causes the dough to rise, making the resulting bread light and fluffy. In brewing, the yeast is responsible for the alcohol content in beer.
Dr. Cano wondered, could these strains of 45-million-year-old yeast still be used to make beer? He was committed to finding out.
"Beer Seemed More Adventurous"
Since yeast is the key ingredient in both bread and beer, Dr. Cano decided to see if his recently revived ancient yeasts could still ferment. But the professor had a decision to make: bread or beer? He later told reporters that "beer seemed more adventurous." Cano partnered up with Joe Kelley, Chip Lambert, and Scott Bonzell to form Fossil Fuels Brewing Company to further his investigation into ancient yeast beer.
An Ancient Taste
Cano and his partners were unsure at first how their beer would taste, but they were pleasantly surprised. People have described the flavor as having hints of cloves and ginger. Often, they remark that it is similar to Blue Moon. The brewers discovered that the prehistoric yeast reacts differently when fermenting the sugars than modern-day yeast. The beer that the old yeast produces is clear, not cloudy, a desired effect in the beer brewing process. Fossil Fuels Brewing Co. now sells its beverages---which include a wheat beer, a pale ale, and naturally, an amber ale---primarily to restaurants and bars in Northern California.
All the Time in the World
Cano has reported that Fossil Fuels Brewing Co. has been slow to grow. He noted the difficulties facing many small businesses---high overhead, lack of investment capital, challenges with finding the right employees, and marketing---but he holds out hope that the company will grow and expand in the future. As a person who works with a 45-million-year-old ingredient, he understands that some things take time.
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