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Beer, easily one of the most loved beverages worldwide, has a rich history, and the brew we drink today has evolved over many millennia. The fermented drink comes in various forms, consistencies and packaging, but any beer-lover worth his salt is always game to try these different versions. And if you belong to this category, could we perhaps interest you in some beer that could transport you four centuries back in time?

Javier Carvajal, an Ecuadoran bioengineer, brewer and professor, has found ‘the fungus of fortune’ — essentially a 400-year-old yeast specimen inside an old oak barrel. And he has since managed to revive the organism and reproduced what could very well be Latin America’s oldest beer!

Scraping the barrel for yeast

This story began in 2008 when Carvajal was on a yeast collection spree. Already experienced with recovering other yeasts, Carvajal came across a historic Franciscan brewery in Quito in a specialist beer magazine.

Intrigued by the possibilities, he sampled yeast from old barrels at the monastery founded in 1566 by a Franciscan monk, friar Jodoco Ricke, from Belgium’s Flemish province. Historians have long thought that Jodoco brought wheat and barley to the area that is now the capital of Ecuador.

Carvajal procured the yeast sample, which was resurrected from a wood splinter kept at Quito’s San Francisco Convent — an ancient complex constructed between 1537 and 1680 that is now a museum.

After removing a splinter, Carvajal used a microscope to spot the microscopic yeast specimen, which he then revived after a protracted period of cultivation.

“Not only have we recovered a biological treasure but also the 400-year-old work of silent domestication of a yeast that probably came from a chicha and that had been collected from the local environment,” Javier Carvajal told AFP.

Chicha is a fermented corn drink brewed by the Indigenous people of the Americas before Spanish colonisation.

Reviving an age-old recipe

Carvajal’s job hardly ended with resurrecting the yeast specimen. Once he managed to get the yeast cells to multiply, what lay before him was the Herculean task of bringing the 16th-century beverage back to life.

Coming from a brewing family, he had a relatively firm grasp on beer brewing. His skill and an industry magazine that vaguely described the formula for the Franciscans’ 16th-century drink helped him kickstart the process.

While the recipe had several holes, he managed to slowly put together fragments of information to resurrect the beverage that hosted the distinct flavours of cinnamon, fig, clove and sugarcane.

Carvajal finally perfected the recipe after ten years of painstaking research and testing, and began making the beer at home in 2018. However, the COVID-19 pandemic thwarted his plans of commercialising it.

He still hasn’t determined his product’s price or launch date. But who wouldn’t pay good money to taste this beverage made using yeast from, according to historian Javier Gomezjurado, the first brewery in Hispanic America?

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