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Amber Ale: Brewing Beer From 45 Million Year Old Yeast


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An aroma like bread dough permeates Raul Cano's lab. He has just removed the cover from a petri dish, and the odor wafts up from several gooey yellow clumps of microorganisms that have been feeding and reproducing in a dark cabinet for the past few days. Cano, a 63-year-old microbiologist at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, inspects the smelly little mounds lovingly. "These are my babies," he says, beaming. "My yeasty beasties."

The dish contains a variant of Saccharomyces cerevisiae, known in culinary circles as baker's or brewer's yeast. But Cano didn't get this from Whole Foods. Back in 1995, he extracted it from a 45 million-year-old fossil. The microorganisms had lain dormant since the Eocene epoch, a time when Australia split off from Antarctica and modern mammals first appeared. Then Cano brought the yeast back to life.

This reanimation of an ancient life form was a breakthrough, a discovery so shocking that the scientific community initially refused to believe it. It changed our understanding of what microorganisms are capable of. It also gave the Cal Poly researcher a brief taste of fame. For a while, he thought it might make him rich. It didn't. Now, just when it seemed his babies would be forgotten, Cano has found a way to share them with the world.

Cano's Saccharomyces coupled with Hackett's know-how to yield a very tasty libation, which is now made and distributed under the name Fossil Fuels Brewing Company. "We won the lottery," Hackett says. "It's such a random thing. A yeast cell, captured in amber, found by a mad scientist. For it to perform well, for it to perform uniquely ... I wouldn't have bet on it."

Fossil Fuels pale ale caused a stir among beer aficionados like William Brand, a former critic with The Oakland Tribune who raved about it on his blog. He noted its "light copper color and an intense clove aroma." He liked its sweetness and the "intriguing, very odd spicy note" in the finish.


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