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Beer brewed from 5,000-year-old yeast 'isn't bad'

Scientists brew beer using yeast from the time of the Egyptian pharaohs, then take a swig.

This ancient beer vessel still harbors yeast. 
Yaniv Berman/Israel Antiquities Authority

Ancient history and modern craft brews have collided in a resurrection story more delicious than any monster-mummy tale. 

Microbiologists with Israel's Hebrew University of Jerusalem led a very drinkable research study that involved resurrecting 5,000-year-old yeast culled from pottery shards that were used as beer and mead jugs during the time of the pharaohs in Egypt. The vessels came from four different archaeological sites in Israel.

Researchers gathered yeast specimens and sequenced their genomes, discovering they were similar to cultures found in traditional Ethiopian honey wine and modern beer yeast. 

Israeli researchers test the beer made with ancient yeast strains.

Yaniv Berman, Israel Antiquities Authority

The scientists weren't satisfied with just examining data. They wanted to taste history, so they called in an Israeli beer expert to make brews using the revived yeast. 

The team brewed up more than one batch using different isolated yeast strains. One was "aromatic and flavorful," while another "was drinkable but had a slight spoiled off-taste."   

"We are talking about a real breakthrough here. This is the first time we succeeded in producing ancient alcohol from ancient yeast," said Yitzchak Paz of the Israel Antiquities Authority. The team published a study on the yeast and beer in the journal mBio.  

The beer creation falls under a field of study known as experimental archaeology that investigates ancient cultures by re-creating everything from food to houses. The PBS series Secrets of Lost Empires is a popular example of this. 

"The greatest wonder here is that the yeast colonies survived within the vessel for thousands of years -- just waiting to be excavated and grown," said Ronen Hazan of Hebrew University. He said the resulting beer "isn't bad."  

Originally published May 23.