Beers, Bones and Biology

The intertwining of paleontology and beer-brewery results in a unique beverage.

By Tim Regan

A partnership between a brewer and a paleontologist creates a beer you can actually learn from.

Jasper Ackerboom at Lost Rhino.
Jasper Ackerboom at Lost Rhino. Photo by Erick Gibson

Beer and education usually only go together during college, but Lost Rhino Brewing Company’s Jasper Akerboom and Paleo Quest’s Jason Osborne plan to change that: They’re working on a beer made partially of yeast from fossils more than a million years old.

The idea was to bring paleontology to the masses, which is also the mission of Osborne’s non-profit, Paleo Quest. “Why not do it through beer?” he says. He enlisted Akerboom—a former co-worker from Janelia, a biomedical research center in Ashburn—to brainstorm how to link paleontology, microbiology and brewing.

At first, Akerboom wanted to take ancient yeast samples from inside pieces of amber, an idea attempted by a small brewery in California. But when the logistics of “Jurassic Park”-ing wild yeast proved to be lofty, Osborne suggested taking yeast from a fossil’s surface. The two ventured to Calvert Marine Museum’s cellar in Solomons, Md. in search of wild, ancient yeast.

There, Akerboom swabbed fossils and scooped some of the dirt around them. At the end of the day, he collected almost 20 samples to bring back to the lab for testing of yeast cells. As expected with a new scientific endeavor, the first results were inconclusive and somewhat disappointing. “Almost all the samples were almost 100-percent bacteria,” says Akerboom. But then, he noticed one of the nutrient-rich solutions—full of cells swabbed from fossilized, extinct whale bones—fermenting. To ensure it wasn’t contaminated by yeast from the brewery, Akerboom retested the original sample and got the same results: more fermentation.

He fed it wort from Lost Rhino’s Faceplant IPA recipe and let the new yeast ferment for a few weeks. The beer, its style undetermined, tasted fairly sweet, and hovered around 4-to-5-percent alcohol by volume—far from Faceplant IPA’s 6.2-percent. “It didn’t ferment all the way down,” says Akerboom. For any other yeast strain, this might be bad news, but it’s a promising sign that this strain of yeast came from the fossil and not the brewery. “If it was beer yeast, it would have been normal levels [of alcohol],” he says.

It’s innovation like this that keeps Lost Rhino competitive in the growing local beer movement. Matt Hagerman, president and co-founder of Lost Rhino, admits this kind of production is unorthodox, but exactly what they want out of Akerboom, who was hired last fall. “I don’t see any small breweries bringing on a lab scientist,” he says. He also hopes that this kind of scientific creativity becomes part of a larger trend in the craft brewing world. “We’re trying to set the standard for some of these smaller [breweries],” says Hagerman. DC Beer staff writer and brewer Michael Stein thinks consumers will embrace these scientific explorations of beer. “This is really unique in that it’s from a fossil,” says Stein. “People really get sucked in to a story that has a good through line.”

Although Lost Rhino still needs to bring this “fossil beer”—as it’s known in the brewery—into full-scale production, Akerboom is proud of the process thus far. Once the beer debuts this spring, the brewery will donate a portion of the proceeds to underprivileged schools’ science programs in partnership with Paleo Quest.

For their next project, Osborne hopes to bring Akerboom to southeastern Virginia’s Great Dismal Swamp to collect wild yeast and conceptualize more paleontology-themed beers, a concept that Hagerman says could become a regular series. “People grow with education,” says Akerboom, “and if people are educated about what we’re doing, then they’re not afraid of it.”

(February 2014)