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There’s chocolate beer, blueberry beer, coffee beer, and now there’s beer made with the help of yeast harvested from a 35-million-year-old whale fossil.
Jasper Akerboom, a beer scientist at Lost Rhino Brewing Co. in Ashburn, Va., swabbed about 20 fossils at the Calvert Marine Museum for yeast last fall, and the yeast from a whale fossil originally found near a swamp in Virginia (and now stored at the museum) happened to grow into one perfect for a summer beer.
Jason Osborne has been passionate about paleontology for years, collecting fossils and donating them to the Calvert Marine Museum and founding the nonprofit Paleo Quest, which promotes science education. Osborne donated the whale bone fossil to the museum and had the idea to swab specimens for yeast.
“I thought of this idea of marrying paleontology and beer,” Osborne said.
Osborne found the whale fossil in 2009 during a dive near the Great Dismal Swamp in southern Virginia. The waters he dove in were so black that even with bright light, he could only see a couple of inches.
The fossil, several vertebrae from a primitive and extinct species of whale, was covered with a layer of organic material. The yeast swabbed from the bones aren’t actually as old as the fossil itself but are derivative of the swamp material found on the bones.
While it was living, the whale was 20 to 30 feet long and had back legs. It’s among the oldest whale remains in the Western Hemisphere and the oldest in Virginia, Osborne said.
During the time the whale was alive, the region was subtropical, like Florida today, with lots of lagoons, and the sea was much higher than it is today, said John Nance, assistant curator of paleontology at the Calvert Marine Museum.
“It’s very exciting,” Nance said of the beer. “We are always doing interesting research, but this takes it to the next level.”
The origin of the fruity, tart and citrusy Bone Dusters Paleo Ale gets people talking about science, which is exactly what Osborne hoped to accomplish.
“The science community is really jazzed up about this because it’s a new way to talk about science,” Osborne said. Part of the proceeds from the sale of Bone Dusters will be donated to Paleo Quest to purchase science equipment for underprivileged schools.
The beer also ties into the growing interest of eating local. Many brewers simply order different varieties of yeast from catalogs, Akerboom said, but this variety was found locally. The dominant flavor in beer is yeast, Akerboom said, so when people try Bone Dusters, they’re truly getting a taste of something local.
“It’s kind of nice to stand out from the crowd,” Akerboom said.
Akerboom said he’s surprised with the success. When he swabbed the fossils in October, he didn’t know what would happen.
“We didn’t know what to expect,” Osborne said. “We had doubts, but that’s how a scientist thinks.”
The first batch of about 650 gallons is almost sold out, and the brewery plans for a second batch in addition to bottling it for sale. Currently, both beer and paleontology enthusiasts can try Bone Dusters at the Virginia brewery and several restaurants and bars in Virginia and Washington, D.C., Akerboom said.