Science & Technology

Ecuadorian researcher recreates South America’s 1st beer from original yeast

By Fernando Gimeno

Quito, Aug 30 (EFE).- A researcher in Ecuador has successfully recreated South America’s first beer, a product made in 1566 by friars at Quito’s Basilica and Convent of San Francisco.

The key for Javier Carvajal, a researcher and professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Ecuador (PUCE) who spent almost half of his life on the project, was to use the same yeast in the fermentation process as those 16th-century monks employed.

“You’ve got to drink up history,” a smiling Carvajal told Efe while looking with pride at a small bottle of Quito 1566.

He came up with the idea for the project in 1992 after reading an article written by the founder of a craft brewers’ association in the United States that pointed to those Franciscan friars as the first to make beer in the Americas.

“My surprise was reading that it happened in Quito, the city where I was born. I wondered right away what that beer would have been like,” Carvajal said.

It wasn’t until 2018 that he got his answer, the result of an arduous, nearly 30-year process of “brewing archaeology” and of applying the knowledge he acquired at Madrid’s Escuela Superior de Cerveza y Malta.

His initial focus was on Jodoco Ricke (the Hispanicized name of Joos de Rijcke), one of the Franciscan friars who arrived in Quito from Flanders in 1535 and is credited with first brewing that pioneering beer.

“They brought the wheat and barley to make flour hosts (for the Eucharist) … but it wasn’t long until their flamenco blood came to the fore and they thought about making beer,” Carvajal said.

“Jodoco Ricke was a learned man. He had the same education as Charles V. He knew about important things in life, like brewing beer,” the researcher joked. “And he started investigating local fermenting agents.”

Through his persistent research, Carvajal managed to gain access to the Basilica and Convent of San Francisco’s “best kept secret”: its old barrels, the same ones that Ricke used to make his beer and that now form part of the complex’s museum.

In 2008, he obtained a permit to extract a few splinters. And in one of those small wood fragments he found what he had spent years searching for: the original yeast.

“It was like trying to find a needle in a haystack,” said Carvajal, who added that he managed to “resurrect” the virtually mummified yeast using a technique developed through years of experimentation and subsequently replicate its DNA.

First, he restructured the walls of the cell membrane using biopolymers of other yeasts; later, he hydrated those walls to get the membrane functioning; finally, he introduced molecules of other yeasts to activate the whole cell machinery.

“We’re talking about life and death, about cells that can be recovered, rejuvenated, awoken,” he said, adding that this technology could be applied to tissue engineering and organ replacement, “awakening dormant cells and bringing them to life again as stem cells,” Carvajal said.

Using that innovative method he obtained a colony of yeast cells that confirmed his suspicions: Jodoco Ricke had used a local yeast related to the one prepared to make chicha, a fermented corn beverage that was a sacred drink for pre-Columbian civilizations like the Incas and which would have seemed to the friar to be very similar to European beer.

But fully recreating the product also involved the fusion of two beer-making technologies: the Central-European tradition of cooking the malted grains and the Anglo-Saxon tradition of “brewing.”

The final result was a dark-tinted beer with a 5.5 percent alcohol content and a “unique taste” that is lightly acidic and bittersweet since it incorporates “candy sugar” from the Old World and the flavors of chicha, thus making it a mestizo beverage.

In about two months, the PUCE expects to establish some initial sales channels for Quito 1566, with the profits to be used to fund scholarships for its students.

“It’s a project that comes from science with the goal of educating new scientists,” Carvajal said. EFE

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