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Vrak is Swedish for "Wreck". Why would anyone choose such a negative-sounding name for a beer? Because it's a shipwreck beer: that's why.

Shipwreck beer is not a style, but I can think of three brews that were raised from the seabed and given a new life. Which are they? That would make a good question for Trivial Pursuit.

The British brewery Harvey's has just introduced an Imperial Stout called A Le Coq, inspired by bottles found in a vessel that sank in the Baltic. Another produces Flag Porter, using yeasts recovered from bottles found in a wreck in the English Channel. Vrak also employs yeast taken from bottles found in a sunken ship. In this instance, the beer was aboard a German cargo steamer Nicomedia, plying between Hamburg and the iron-and-steel port of Lulea, in the far north of Sweden, near the frontier with Finland. The steamer met her demise during the First World War, in the early days of submarines.

The steamer was chased and intercepted by a British submarine, based in the allied Russian port of Murmansk. In one of those wartime cameos that live in the memory, the boarding party of submariners were offered a cask of beer by the steamer's German crew. Once the crew had been taken off the cargo vessel, it was sunk. On that day, October 10-11, 1915, the same submarine, known as E-19, sank four ships and damaged a fifth. This later became known as "the submarine massacre".

After the two World Wars, fishermen at some point saw the wreck of the Nicomedia, and in 1982 a team of Swedish divers examined the vessel. This led to archive research, which revealed some of the details of the encounter. In 1999, 15 bottles of beer were recovered. The cask and the bottles are thought to have been supplies for the crew. After 84 years, there were no labels -- if there ever had been.

A Swedish brewery sent some bottles to a lab, which confirmed that the beer contained viable yeast. This included cells of a strain known as Williopsis, which more commonly occurs in wine.

My first thought was that it might have been some half-forgotten style of North German wheat beer (of which there are several), but I was far from sure.

In 2000, I was given a sample of the beer. To my astonishment, it still had enough carbonation to create a little foam. Its color was a hazy orange; its body thinnish but firm; its aromas and flavors banana-like and fruity, with some lemony sourness in the finish. My first thought was that it might have been some half-forgotten style of North German wheat beer (of which there are several), but I was far from sure. These characteristics could have developed in a lager of that period of time. Bottling was a long way from being sterile in 1915, and the selection and handling of yeast still in its early days.

The Swedish brewery which had the beer analysed wanted to try and use the yeast, and that is how Vrak was created. Inspired by the guess that the original was a wheat beer, the brewers used 56 per cent of that grain, along with Carapils. The hops are Northern Brewer and Styrian Golding, in two additions. Vrak is bottle-conditioned, and has an alcohol content of 5.4 per cent by volume (4.3 by weight).

A more conventional wheat beer, called Vit ("White"); a "Black" beer, Svart; a Belgian-style abbey ale, Kloster; and several other specialities; are also produced.

The brewery, established in 1997-98, is called Slottskallans, after a nearby castle. It is in the town of Uppsala, home of the oldest university in Sweden. The town is about 50 miles north of Stockholm, the capital.

The notion of establishing a brewery came from Hans Finell, an economist working in the management of duty-free sales for Scandinavian Airlines. He had visited San Francisco and been excited by micro-breweries and brewpubs in the Bay Area. Hans now manages Slottskallans, which is a free-standing micro in a modern industrial lot.

Partner Urban Nillson, who has a doctorate in international relations, was a home-brewer. He was in the same fraternity as Hakan Lundgren, a pioneer of micro-brewing in Sweden. Urban's studies of peace and conflict were no doubt helpul when worked as a chef. Now, the Swedish Chef is brewer at Slottskallans.

A third founder is Jonas Anderson, who worked in sales and marketing for Pripps, the biggest brewing company in Sweden. He is also a keen trumpeter -- a useful skill when the company needs to do some tooting.

Tasting note: Aroma of garden mint, dried flowers and cut grass. Iridiscent bronze color. Firm, dry, body. Flowery (buttercups?), slightly spicy (cloves?), winey palate. Stalky, hay-like, earthy dryness in the finish.

Food pairings: Cream cheese pies are favoured in the north of Sweden and neighbouring Finland. Or turn (gastronomically) to the Baltics' more Slavic stretches for doughy treats like pirogi. The flavours in this beer might even better accompany the tomato-ish acidity of a deep-dish Chicago pizza. Likewise its flowery, grassy, hay-like flavors may accompany chicken dishes or lamb more comfortably than the stronger-tasting elk and reindeer that feature so heavily in the diet of the far north.

Published: AUG 21, 2001
In: Beer Hunter Online

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