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Brits Brew Beer Booty

What do you get when you combine British divers’ proclivity for shipwreck exploration with their strong affinity for beer? A tasty treasure hunt on the “Wallachia” that resulted in swilling 126-year old reconstituted British beer. GUE Scotland’s detective chief inspector Andy Pilley recounts the tale.

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by Andy Pilley
Images courtesy of
A. Pilley

Header Image: GUE Scotland’s brewmeisters enjoying their brew (L to R) Top: Owen Flowers, Andy Pilley, Wayne Heelbeck. Middle: Steve Symington, A. Pilley, O. Flowers, Bottom: W. Heelbeck, Sergej Maciuk, S. Symington

“Give my people plenty of beer, good beer, and cheap beer, and you will have no revolution among them.”

Queen Victoria

I never thought when I started diving 10 years ago, that one day I would be able to sit down for a pint of beer with the team from GUE Scotland recreated from a brew that has been hidden under the waves for 126 years. Let me explain.

The Wallachia was a single screw cargo steamer that was owned by William Burrell & Son of Glasgow, and employed on regular trips between Glasgow and the West Indies. On 29th September, 1895 she left Queen’s Dock, Glasgow at 10am bound for Trinidad and Demerara. On board was a valuable general cargo including whisky, gin, beer, acids, glassware, and earthenware plus building materials and footwear. By 1pm that afternoon she had settled on the seabed of the Clyde Estuary after colliding with another ship in a fog bank, she was forgotten until 1977 when a local sub-aqua club rediscovered the wreck site.

The wreck of the Wallachia lies on an even keel in approximately 34 metres of water on a sandy seabed. The wreck itself is largely intact and has six holds in total, three forward and three aft. In the rearmost hold there are thousands of bottles of beer, some still inscribed with the name of the maker, McEwans of Glasgow. This is where myself and the team from GUE Scotland enter the story.

The Wreck of the Wallachia 

The Wallachia is one of the more accessible sites on the west coast of Scotland, where we carry out most of our diving. Depending on weather and tidal conditions, visibility on the wreck can be +10m/33 ft on a very good day or less than 2m/6 ft if there has been a lot of rain due to the amount of particulate in the water. Other elements to consider are the tide as this can vary in its intensity, as well as surrounding boat traffic. The wreck lies in close proximity to a ferry route and care must be taken not to dive when the ferry is closeby. However despite the challenges, the wreck is very rewarding and offers a diver plenty of places to explore and items to look at. 

The main point of interest for most has been the rearmost hold, where the bottles of whisky and beer were stored. The majority of the whisky was removed in the 1980’s however a few bottles can be found on occasion, depending where you look. What remains are thousands of bottles of beer, still with the corks and contents intact. Over the course of 2018 & 2019, the team at GUE Scotland dived on the wreck and recovered a number of bottles from the hold. 

After a chance discussion with a friend at dinner one night, I was given contact details for a company called Brewlab, which is based in Sunderland in the north east of England. Brewlab specialise in the provision of specialist brewing training, as well as laboratory services such as quality assurance, product development, chemical/microbiology testing as well as long term research options. I made contact with Keith Thomas, the Director of Brewlab, to discuss whether he would be interested in analysing the beer and investigating whether it could be recreated. Needless to say the proposal piqued his interest and arrangements were made for the bottles to be shipped to his lab.

Unbeknownst to me, the recovery of historical beers is rare, due to various sources of degradation/contamination which can affect any residual microbial cells and chemical components left in the beer that were used as part of the brewing process. So these samples are a valuable source of information on past brewing and microbiology. Over the course of 2019/2020, Keith and I kept in regular contact over the progress of the investigations and the full analysis of the beer has recently been published.

A Brewing Interest

Between 1850 and 1950, the application of scientific principles to brewing was becoming increasingly prevalent and microbiology was playing an increasingly important role. A pertinent issue in brewing microbiology around 1900 was the application of pure Saccharomyces yeast cultures developed by Hansen at the Carlsberg laboratory in 1888. These were readily adopted by continental breweries as providing more controlled production and purer beers. Application to UK brewing was, however, less positively received, in part because of the belief that British beers possessed particular flavours arising from mixed yeast cultures and, specifically, the involvement of Brettanomyces species. This was especially believed to be essential for the character of ‘stock’ ales which were matured for extended periods.

While a number of breweries did try pure culture yeasts, UK brewing was resistant to change and, with the intervention of World War I, retained its indigenous yeast cultures. Since the 1940’s a more biotechnological approach to fermentation demonstrated the value of pure culture and was progressively applied to the larger breweries developing at that time. 

During the formative period of brewery microbiology after Pasteur, brewing yeast were identified as Saccharomyces species based on morphological features of shape, filamentous propensity and spore characteristics. Non brewing, ‘wild’ yeast was recognised and termed ‘Torula’ if non-sporulating. Of these Brettanomyces strains were identified as contributing important character to stock ales. It is also clear from brewing texts that bacteria were recognised as spoilage organisms in beer, as had been initially demonstrated by Pasteur in 1863. These species were mostly categorised as bacilli and typically portrayed as rods and associated with sarcina sickness – generally producing sourness. Some studies, nevertheless, identified lactic acid bacteria as indigenous components of standard beers.

Contemporary breweries are increasingly interested in using novel microbiology, either unconventional yeast strains or mixes of species and strains for sour and natural products. Identifying the specific strains and species of yeast and bacteria present in Victorian and Edwardian beers is directly relevant to this and has particular value if cultures of authentic microorganisms can be retrieved. Reports of retrieved historic brewery microbiology are limited but hold interesting promise for identifying novel microorganisms.

The specific parameters of the analysis are contained in a published research paper, Preliminary microbiological and chemical analysis of two historical stock ales from Victorian and Edwardian brewing.”

As I mentioned, the primary objective of the analysis was to confirm whether detail could be provided on the original brewing ingredients and the fermentation microbiology. The analysis confirmed the use of Brettanomyces/Dekkera bruxellensis and Debaryomyces hansenii, which are brewing and fermentation yeasts respectively. The presence of Debaryomyces is interesting as this genus has not been noted as a historic feature of historic brewing, but has been identified in spontaneous fermentations, for example in Belgian lambic beers. Although the strain was reported to the brewing industry in 1906, it has not featured as a major contributor to beer fermentations since.


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The analysis has also provided relevant information of the beer character and has confirmed that the beer recovered from the Wallachia was a stout, close to style expectations of the time and had an alcohol content of c. 7.5%. The colour gravity was high, resulting in a much darker beer however a much lower level of bitterness. Again this was typical style of the time and differs from other modern stouts.

More interestingly is the presence of various types of bacteria, which will likely have been picked up during the brewing process. The table below lists these for reference. Needless to say, historic brewing was not a sterile process in comparison to modern methods!

Bacillus licheniformisPlant and soil bacterium
Finegoldia magnaCommensal skin bacterium
Fusobacterium sp.Possible pathogenic bacterium
Kocuria roseaPossible urinary tract pathogen
Mogibacterium pumilumPossible oral cavity bacterium
Shigella sonneiEnteric pathogen
Staphylococcus epidermidisCommensal skin bacterium
Stenotrophomonas maltophiliaSoil bacterium
Varibaculum cambriensePossible pathogenic bacterium

Table 1: The bacteria found in the Wallachia beer bottles

Due to the relatively stable conditions on the wreck, being in near darkness and at a relatively cold temperature (between 6º–14ºC/43º-57ºF depending on the time of year), the live yeast structures within the beer were protected from sources of stress and allowed them to survive over the past 126 years. Luckily, Keith was able to extract these samples and begin to recultivate the yeast, specifically the Debaryomyces, with the hope of being able to rebrew the beer.

Cheers Mates

Just before Christmas, I finally received word from Keith that he had completed a trial brew and seven bottles of the brew were on their way to me. A few excitement laden days later and a nondescript box arrived at my office with the beer inside. I called the guys on our Facebook group chat to show them the case and got each bottle packaged up and sent out to them. 

A few days later, once everyone had received their sample we got together again to try the samples. There was an air of excitement after the two years it had taken us to get to this point, the most anticipated pint ever! I’m no expert in the flavour profiles of beer so you will have to forgive me for my relatively basic analysis. In summary, I got flavours of coffee and chocolate and there was a relatively low level of carbonation, which made it very drinkable. The rest of the team got similar flavours, the only complaint being there wasn’t more to try!

There will of course be slight differences in flavour since we don’t normally add the bacteria listed above as ingredients. However, the recipe we have is as close as we can make it to the original stock version.

The next steps for the project are to carry out further investigation on the characteristics of the Debaryomyces yeast strain in order to determine their suitability for fermentation and potential use in future brewing production. We are making approaches to various commercial breweries in order to discuss future commercialisation of the recipe and produce the brew on large scale. With the story behind the original recipe, we’re hopeful that the provenance would be a key selling point to consumers. It is my hope that the recovery of these samples will open up new possibilities for different types of beers to be developed, and offer something different for beer enthusiasts to try.

I have also found out that there are other types of beer to be found on the wreck, specifically an IPA style. Once we’re allowed to begin diving again, I am hoping to return to the Wallachia and recover some of these bottles so we can carry out the same analysis and keep the project moving forward.

In the mean-time, cheers!

Dive Deeper:

The Brewlab Podcast, Episode 2 (March 30, 2021): Lost Beers Recreated from Shipwreck Bottles

GUE Scotland vlog -Episode 1


Andy Pilley is a Chartered Surveyor, team member of GUE Scotland, passionate wreck & cave diver and Ghost Fishing UK team diver. Andy started diving with the Scottish Sub-Aqua club in 2011 and began diving with GUE in 2018. Andy dives on the east and west coasts of Scotland where there is a rich maritime history and an abundance of wrecks to be explored. He has a passion for project diving and is developing objectives for a number of sites with the GUE Scotland team. He hopes to assist on the Mars Project and with the WKPP in the future.

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The Risk and Management of Record Chasing

The pursuit of deep diving records is an unsettling but accepted facet of tech diving culture. On the one hand, we are driven as a species by our genetic predisposition to “Go Where No One Has Gone Before.” Blame it on our DRD4-7R explorer gene! On the other, many question the value and legitimacy of conducting a high risk, touch-and-go line dive for recognition and bragging rights alone. Where and how do we reconcile the two? Here diving physiologist Neal Pollock seeks to answer those questions in a compelling, principled exposition that may help you to sharpen your beliefs.

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By Neal W. Pollock, PhD. Header image: Nuno Gomes getting ready to make his 2005 world record dive to 318.25m m/1039 ft in the Gulf of Aquaba.

Humans have probably been chasing records as long as we have existed. Og was almost certainly proud of discovering that two stones could be rubbed together to make fire, and it likely resulted in a solid community standing for at least a while. Tempting though it may be, we cannot blame our interest in records on the advent of the Internet or social media. The Guinness Book of World Records, a small example of documenting novelty, was first published in Great Britain in 1955. The Internet and social media, however, have made the striving for and tracking of new records more intense. 

Record making is well established in diving as well as in most other communities. There are interminable lists of the first makers of equipment, the first to implement or explore, and the most extreme doers of deeds. History shows them to be pivotal, meaningful, or trivial as it unfolds. Keeping the record straight is important, but the decision as to why and whether to pursue records is worth debating. 

I am a fan of documenting meaningful events, but I have concerns over an excessive focus on arbitrary milestones. When a community puts more weight on records than actual achievements, the drive can become pointless or problematic. The pointless includes many Guinness records, such as the most number of people brushing their teeth simultaneously and the largest rubber band ball.

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While some in the diving community have pursued fairly pointless but low risk records, it is the problematic ones that are a much greater concern. Underwater activities involve greater risk than many other endeavors, relying on equipment, training, technique, and practice to produce an envelope in which reasonable levels of safety can be maintained. Pursuing records is generally about pushing boundaries, and when the boundaries are set by the interaction of physics and physiology, the erosion of safety buffers can produce serious risk. The pursuit of targets can overwhelm well-founded safety concerns and common sense. 

“Record chasing can produce good outcomes, and some meaningful achievements, but when going forward is reliant on misplaced beliefs that personal motivation and superiority can overcome unforgiving limits, the outcome can be bad for both individual and community, even if considered successful.” 

Record chasing can produce good outcomes, and some meaningful achievements, but when going forward is reliant on misplaced beliefs that personal motivation and superiority can overcome unforgiving limits, the outcome can be bad for both individual and community, even if considered successful. 

Nuno Gomes’ support team for his 2005 Guinness World Record Dive to 318.25m/1039 ft

One of the chief challenges in diving is that the interaction of physics and physiology creates difficult-to-define limits. There are differences in tolerance between individuals and often between exposures. Different breathing gas mixtures can alter narcotic potential, respiratory gas density, decompression stress, and susceptibility to oxygen toxicity and high pressure nervous syndrome, among other concerns. Differences in workload, stress, physical fitness, and physical skill can also alter the response to other more fixed stressors. Practically, the interactions between the host of factors is complex and can make the element of chance more important than people would like to admit. A scary reality of many boundary-pushing events is the fact that getting away with something once, or even multiple times, does not necessarily make it safe, and almost certainly not safe for all. 

Ahmed Gabr’s 2014 Guinness World Record Deep Dive remains under controversy

Records achieved with a large helping of good luck still count, but they can be extremely troubling if others are encouraged to try to surpass them. Not only can tolerance and good fortune differ, the lessons learned in building to “record” performance may not be appreciated by those who follow, potentially magnifying the risks. 

Care is warranted to decide on what “records” are truly worth pursuing and what should be left alone. A simple practical test is whether an activity serves any purpose beyond the record attempt. If there is no other benefit or purpose, the value in it may not be sufficient to continue, especially when the associated risks may be high. 

Source: Nuno Gomes

Record attempts are sometimes pursued by relative newcomers to a field. It is unclear how much of this is due to simple enthusiasm or a desire to stand out, but all such efforts are best met with counsel before encouragement. The field needs leaders, and the next generation of leaders, but this requires keeping those with potential both healthy and engaged. This may come down to mindset—finding what is most important and appropriate to pursue as part of personal growth. 

Leaders who want to establish themselves are best served by ensuring that they have the best understanding, skill, and experience within the realm of what they will need to do rather than pushing the envelope for increased fame. Chasing records by sacrificing safety margins and/or ignoring compromised states of affairs is not compatible with accepted best practice. Those looking up to leaders for inspiration may not fully appreciate the issues and concerns, but the best leaders will be conscious of the total impact their efforts can have on others. 

Karen van den Oever after she dived to a depth of 246.65 m/809 ft in Bushmansgat cave, South Africa, representing the women’s world record deep cave dive. 

Bragging about exceptional or record exploits is problematic in that it can encourage others who may be inadequately prepared to follow suit. It may be a hard reality for the keen, hungry, and superbly confident instructor to accept, but they can provide a much better service to their students by encouraging them to stay within the accepted realm of operational safety. This is often most effectively demonstrated through example. The goal should be to promote a long and healthy diving life, effectively achieved by solid training and an instilled appreciation for the value of robust safety buffers and a constant revisiting of “what if” preparation. 

We should recognize the meaningful efforts in the community, but without losing sight of the implications of such endeavors. Promotion of a positive safety culture requires questioning whether things should be done, and how things that should be done can be done with appropriate safety margins. If meaningful efforts result in record achievements they should be applauded, but always with an appropriate framing of any associated value, limitations, hazards, and implications.

Reporting the exceptional is important, but a high priority should also be put on recognizing activities and efforts that are unexceptional in outcome due to appropriate preparation and execution within safe boundaries. Efforts to improve training, awareness, and operational safety must always be promoted. Safety programming is challenging since, when it is effective…, nothing happens. Ongoing commitment is required to ensure that it continues to be effective. 

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I would posit that the best record attempts are those pursued without fanfare, moving quietly from concept through to safe workup stages and then safe completion. The reporting of record efforts should always consider the value and relevance of the activity. Achievements that violate the criteria for safe performance should be neither encouraged nor glorified. 

We live in a time when the pursuit and promotion of records can be expected to continue, but appropriate framing can help to ensure that the community benefits from a sustained focus on safety and thoughtfulness.

See Companion Story: I Trained Doc Deep by Jon Kieran

Dive Deeper

InDEPTH: Fact or Fiction? Revisiting Guinness World Record Deepest Scuba Dive by Michael Menduno

InDEPTH: Karen van den Oever Continues to Push the Depth at Bushmansgat: Her New Record—246m by Nuno Gomes

InDEPTH: South African Cave Diver Karen van den Oever Sets New Women’s Deep Cave Diving Record by Nuno Gomes

InDEPTH: Opinion: Don’t Break That Record by Dimitris Fifis

InDEPTH: Diving Beyond 250 Meters: The Deepest Cave Dives Today Compared to the Nineties by Michael Menduno and Nuno Gomes

InDEPTH: Extending The Envelope Revisited: The 30 Deepest Tech Shipwreck Dives by Michael Menduno

InDEPTH:  High Pressure Problems on Über-Deep Dives: Dealing with HPNS by Reilly Fogarty


Neal Pollock holds a Research Chair in Hyperbaric and Diving Medicine and is an Associate Professor in Kinesiology at Université Laval in Québec, Canada. He was previously Research Director at Divers Alert Network (DAN) in Durham, North Carolina. His academic training is in zoology, exercise physiology, and environmental physiology. His research interests focus on human health and safety in extreme environments.

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