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Nourishing My Inner Tekkie At Bonaire Tek

What goes on when you bring together a group of 80-some enthusiastic tech divers, provide boats and beach access, rebreathers, doubles and scooters, ply them with plenty of helium, nitrox, oxygen and sorb, nightly brain food and then turn them loose—sans gloves—on some of the most bodacious reefs on the planet? Here InDepth editor-in-chief Michael Menduno tells all, well almost, of what went on.

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by Michael Menduno

Header photo by Matthias Leno courtesy of Buddy Dive Resort

Where is Bonaire? That’s the question that diving friends were still texting me as I boarded my plane for the eighth annual Bonaire Tek gathering—a week-long tech diving love fest held 6-11 OCT on the small island of Bonaire in the Leeward Antilles, in the southeastern Caribbean. The island—technically a special municipality of the Netherlands—along with Aruba and Curacao, form the ABC islands located 80 km/50 mi off the coast of Venezuela, and is known for diving, windsurfing, and sailboarding. 

Meet Mr. G who oversees the technical diving program at Buddy Dive Resort.

I was on assignment for InDepth and looking forward to meeting German Arango a.k.a. “Mr.G,” who oversees the technical diving program at the Buddy Dive Resort, which hosts the event. Sporting long wavy hair and a salt-n-pepper beard, the 45-year old Colombian-born tech diving instructor who teaches primarily for GUE, as well as for  NAUI and PADI, was responsible for conceiving the idea for Bonaire Tek and has organized the event for the last eight years. “My goal is to build a community here,” he told me when he picked me up at the airport. 

And he is succeeding. Bonaire Tek, which is sponsored by Dive Rite, SubGravity, SANTI, KISS Rebreathers, and Silent Diving has grown each year since its inception. This year there were 81 divers—57 men and 24 women—from 11 countries, including North and South America, Europe and Australia representing 52 open-circuit (OC) and 29 closed circuit rebreather (CCR) divers.

The concept of a tech diving “camp” embodied by Bonaire Tek, the pioneering TekCamp held at Vobster Quay in the UK, Underworld Tulum’s Cave Camp, and the Ponza Rebreather Meeting in Ponza, Italy, has proven itself to be a fantastic vehicle to engage geeky divers in tech, and help spread the love. To wit, bring in a manageable-sized group of avid tech divers of varying experience levels, provide plenty of awesome diving, an opportunity to take courses, try-out new gear, share stories, enjoy depth-full talks on various aspects of diving, eat, drink, meet new friends, and hang with the tribe.

Buddy Dive Resort. Photo by Michael Menduno.

To be sure, Bonaire Tek, which ran from Sunday through Friday, didn’t disappoint! There was a communal breakfast every morning, followed by dedicated OC and CCR tech boats and a variety of shore diving. There were people who came simply to dive, and others who were taking courses. In the afternoons there were additional boats and dockside try-dives on AP Diving, KISS, O2ptima and xCCR rebreathers, various side mount rigs and SubGravity scooters. In the evening, we gathered for one or more talks, and dinner and drinks. Rinse and repeat.

Bodacious Bonaire 

Mr. G diving the Windjammer. Photo by Kirill Egorov.

Pulling my nitrox 50 deco while gently gliding along the phantasmagoric wall of boulder-sized coral heads amidst hundreds of bright colored reef fish, following our mix dive to the wreck of the Windjammer more than 30 m/100 f below, gave new meaning to the notion of Caribbean reef diving! More surprising, we conducted the dive from shore. The water was consistently 30 C/86 F at the surface and dropped to 27 C/80 F at around 50 m. Visibility was in the 30-40 m/100-130 f range, and they tell me the reefs are almost always diveable. It’s easy to get spoiled by Bonaire! 

In recreational diving circles, or maybe it’s the island’s tourism bureau, the island is known as the “Shore Diving Capital Of The World!” For good reason. On the leeward (diving) side of the island, which is approximately 39 km/24 mi long by 5-8 km/3-5 mi wide, the reef and drop-offs begin within a short swim from shore (windsurfing and sailboarding are prevalent on the windward side). The same is true of the even smaller island, Klein Bonaire, which is nestled in the leeward embrace of Bonaire, a mere 800 m/0.5 mi swim away. From the air, the two islands look like an amoeba swallowing a bite-sized morsel of food! 

In fact, dive marketing mavens have identified more than 80 dive sites along Bonaire’s leeward side. As cardiologist and tech instructor, Doug Ebersole, one of the presenters, put it, “Where else can you make a 200-foot plus wreck dive, followed by a wall dive and see sailfish blennies?” Bonaire!

According to the amicable and animated Mr.G, the reefs are near pristine for several reasons. First, is the arid island’s low population density—there are only 20,000 permanent residents on the island, little rainfall, and no agriculture. Read: minimal impact population pressure and little chemical runoff. 

Second, the Dutch have long instituted conservation measures; the island was designated a marine sanctuary in 1979. As Mr.G instructed the assembled divers during his initial briefing, “Whatever you do, don’t touch or take anything; gloves are not allowed!,” he said, giving a new twist to the old urban meme, “NO GLOVE, MORE LOVE!” 

Buddy Dive also supports the Reef Renewal Foundation Bonaire, headed by local marine biologist and tech diver, Francesca Virdis, and they host part of their nursery on Buddy’s Reef, which begins 20m/64 f from the dock. The island is also known for its wild donkeys and flamingos.

Bodacious Buddy Dive

Much of the success of the event was due to the dive-oriented venue and the amazing support provided by Mr.G and his team. Located right on the water’s edge, and offering 24/7 diving, Buddy Dive Resort is arguably a bit of diver heaven. Eleven yellow stucco buildings with spacious, clean, air-conditioned apartments, patios to dry dive gear, two pools, a dockside dive service center, and 24/7 accessible wooden airy dive lockers and tanks—no surcharge for banked nitrox 32, along with a drive-thru fill station. There are also two restaurants, car rentals, laundry service, and drinkable de-salinized water. All you have to do is dive! 

Photo by Andrea Peterson.

Providing daily diving support and gas for 81 enthusiastic tech divers is no small task, and Mr.G’s team of divemasters and gas blenders handled it with aplomb, albeit with little sleep—the fill team pulled multiple late to all-nighters. Divers were assigned individual numbered cylinders including their singles, doubles, stage bottles, and CCR tanks, which were filled to meet their daily gas needs in an area called the “Tech Block.” It likely represents the largest gas blending operation in the Caribbean. That’s where divers picked up their cylinders, analyzed, and labeled them for the day’s diving. 

Buddy divemasters, many of whom had been GUE trained, provided diver support on the daily boats and typically accompanied dive teams. We were even joined by head of dive operations for Buddy Dive, Augusto Montbrun, who with his team, spent a morning supporting two teams of tech divers.

Bonaire Tek Stats

Nitrox 32 bank. Photo by Michael Menduno.

Tank Fills: 2100

Liters of helium consumed: 180,000

Liters of oxygen consumed: 324,000

Liters of banked nitrox 32: 1,000,000

Kilograms of sorb: 360 kg/792 lbs.

Number of dives conducted: 660+

Hours underwater (est.): 550+

Hours of decompression(est.): 225+

Deepest dive: 107m/350 ft

Big Smiles: 81,000

Celebrating Our Tech Sisters

The theme for this year’s Bonaire Tek was “Ladies First,” helped by SANTI, and fittingly the gathering had the largest female turnout yet, representing roughly 30% of participants. Yay!


Argentinian tekkie Marcia Gallego’s festive dive themed nails.

Accordingly, Mr.G arranged for several female-focused presentations beginning with a homage to “Female Tech” presented by Buddy Dive’s PADI Course Director and tech, cave and CCR diver, Lars Bosman. His presentation began by recognizing early diving pioneers, such as Simon Melchior Cousteau, Dottie Frazer, Zale Perry, and Dr. Sylvia Earle. He then went on to profile contemporary tekkies like explorers Jill Heinerth, Verna Van Schaik, and Immi Wallin, photographer Becky Schott, shark whisperer Cristina Zenato, stuntwoman and model Szilvia Gogh, Helene “Wethorse” Graauw, who invented the “She-P,” and Bonaire’s own Virdis.  

Ebersole followed a few nights later with a presentation entitled “Women’s Issues in Technical Diving.” After offering a disclaimer that he was “NOT a woman,” he proceeded to discuss the science on decompression sickness (DCS) and gender, DCS and menstrual cycles, diving and pregnancy, breast augmentation, DCS and birth control pills, menopause and more. He later wrote up his talk, which we will publish in the December issue InDepth.

Mr.G had also arranged for morning yoga and core-building exercise sessions which were enthusiastically attended by humans of both genders. Interestingly, they also tried to arrange for a women-only boat dive day, but there were no takers, even after repeated attempts, to the apparent surprise of the organizers. One female observer noted women want to be included, not set apart.

Steeped In History

Group dinner following the day’s dives.

Bonaire Teksters, whose average age was likely pushing 50, were offered a trio of diving history presentations over the course of the week. On our first night, we were treated to a talk, “Maritime Archeology in Bonaire” by Dutch marine archeologist, Ruud Stelton PhD. He explained Bonaire’s early history, initially as a cattle plantation for the Spanish in the 1500s, and later, in the 1600s, a plantation of the Dutch West India Company supplying salt used for preserving food to Europe on the backs of slave labor. Salt continues to be Bonaire’s largest export today, and salt fields are visible in the north, as well as the huts where slave populations lived. Moorings, abandoned anchors, and artifacts can also be found.

Dive Rite founder and cave diving pioneer, Lamar Hires, regaled us with tales of some of the early developments in cave diving with  his talk, “Cave Diving: Mission Specific.” He began by explaining the early 1980s development of sidemount with cave diving pioneer Woody Jasper, regarded as the “father of sidemount.” At the time, the test of a good cave diver was to the ability to swim to the Hinkel restriction (975m/3200 f) and back to Ginnie Springs on a set of doubles.

As Hires explained, part of their motivation for diving sidemount was finding cave that the “big boys” hadn’t yet explored. That would be famed explorer Sheck Exley and Woodville Karst Plains project (WKPP) co-founder Bill Main. “We knew if it required sidemount, Sheck and Bill hadn’t been there,” Hires said with Mona Lisa-like smile. He also discussed the skepticism that greeted the first isolator manifolds as a result of three cave diving fatalities. Of course, isolator manifolds eventually became the standard. 

Dive Rite founder and cave diving pioneer, Lamar Hires giving his presentation. Photo by Michael Menduno.

Hires went on to talk about their first use of oxygen as a decompression gas (instead of simply using it to pad their air tables) at Cow Springs in 1986. Hires and his team were able to incorporate oxygen because anesthetist John T. Crea and his company’s Submariner Research Ltd. computer program was able to cut air with O2 tables, requiring them to pull their oxygen stop at 9 m/30 ft. It was a fascinating talk.

I also gave a two-part talk, “Revisiting The Technical Diving Revolution: An Insider’s Look at the People, Projects and Technology that Created Technical Diving.” In it, I discussed the emergence of tech diving in the mid-to-late 1980s, the development of “special mix” diving, nitrox, the origins of the name ‘technical diving,’” early tech diving fatalities, the persistence of deep air, and the development of consumer rebreathers. Call it a “history stop!”

Joys of Team Diving

The diving is what brings people to these events. I was no exception.

I made my first shake out dive of the trip with Bosman, who took me to what he said was one of the best reefs on Bonaire, called Lac Cai, on the windward side of the island. After negotiating our rocky beach entry with doubles and a pair of SubGravity Ecos S DPVs, we conducted a luxurious 75-minute dive along the length of the breathtaking reef wall max depth 23 m/75 f surrounded by bands of sea turtles, rays, and large silver tarpon. It was a sublime beginning to a glorious week in the water.

Photo by Andrea Peterson.

I am currently getting re-certified for mix diving, and in the process of completing my GUE Tech 1 (normoxic helium diving) training.  As a result, I was excited about spending the week diving with friends from Team GUE Seattle, who had a contingent of ten, including a non-GUE rebreather diver, as well as some recreational divers.

Though not everyone’s cup of tea (mind that Kool-Aid!), I have a growing appreciation for GUE’s standardized approach to diving—standard config, gases, deco, protocol. It puts everyone on the same page so they can focus on the main goal: Having Big Fun! 

The T1 class is all about underwater problem solving while maintaining one’s buoyancy and trim in the water column, and most importantly one’s COMPOSURE. After all, just like nitrox, breathing helium is easy, you just breathe in, and then breathe out. The induced problems we dealt with in class included resolving bubbling first stages and manifolds, out of gas situations, non-working deco gas, and failed mask, which occurred one at a time or in combinations, for example, while shooting an SMB. 

So imagine my glee upon descending on our first dive to see my dive buddy, photographer Matthias Lebo, with first stage seal bubbling. I knew what to do. I immediately swam over to affect a fix by trying to screw down his left post. To no avail.  Full disclosure: I had forgotten my lesson; valves don’t move when pressurized. (I’m sure Gareth Lock, Mr. Human Diver, has a reference for me: fact retention). Argh! Not to worry. My teammate Bert Brezicha reached over, checked that Lebo was breathing from his right post, shut down his left, purged the reg, tightened the valve, and powered up the post. No bubbles, no troubles; we were good to go. I will never forget that again!!

Team GUE Seattle meets Team NAUI Tec Argentina. Photo by Buddy Dive Resort.

Though I was skeptical at first, I have come around and really appreciate GUE’s team or operational approach to deco, which again makes things easy and keeps the dive team together. I suppose it’s ironic, that just like the early days of tech, GUE dives tables instead of computers, in this case generated by DecoPlanner software (based on Buhlmann Z-16 and or VPM-B algorithms). Dive computers are there as a back-up though not really needed. 

They also use standard gases such as Trimix 21/35 (21% O2, 35% He) for depths from 30m-45m/100-148 f, trimix 18/45 from 45-60M/148-197 f etc., and deco gasses like nitrox 50 and oxygen, which makes things easy. In Bonaire, we were primarily diving nitrox 32 or trimix 18/45 for deep dives with nitrox 50 for decompression. 

What’s more GUE modifies its deco procedures to make them easy to carry out as a team using only gauges. So instead of everyone chasing their own dive computer, we ascend as a team to our first stop at a 9m/minute rate (30 f/min), depending on the dive make our gas switches to say nitrox 50 at 21m/70f (team-based gas switch protocol) and proceed to work our way back to the surface. 

Rather than stop for example for one min at 21 m, one at 18 m, two at 15 m, two at 12 m, three minutes at 9 m up and then say 20-minute at the 6 m stop as calculated from DecoPlanner, GUE-ers average their stop times so they stop two minutes at each stop from 21m to 9m and then pull their required 20-minute deco at 6 m. The resulting plan? “Twos and 20!” Easy to remember, and easy to conduct. In fact, that’s the deco we—the shallow team—did on our Windjammer dive to 50 m/164 f with 20 minutes bottom time. Deco on deeper and longer dives get a little more complex.

Modify the numbers from the deco algorithm? Is nothing sacred? The argument being that the algorithms i.e. one minute here, two minutes there etc. are just an approximation anyway; decompression is not (yet) a precise science. In fact, according to a recent DAN Europe study, 94% of hits occur within the specified table or computer. GUE’s thinking: better to prioritize team unity and operations. See Jablonski’s article “Decompression, Deep Stops, and the Pursuit of Precision in a Complex World, Part Three; Bubble-wise, Pound Foolish.”

A final lesson in protocol: We were running late. I was waiting for my gas; doubles with 18/45, and a nitrox 50 stage. Team Seattle was waiting for me. I finally got my tanks, analyzed my gas, got labels, filled them out hurriedly, and then inadvertently mixed up the labels. I put my 50% label on my doubles and the 18/45 on my stage. I didn’t notice. However, my GUE teammate, anesthesiologist Heléné Pellerin did. “Michael, your labels are incorrect. You must re-analyze your gas,” she said with no uncertainty in her French Quebec accent. “No problem. I’ll just write new labels, “ I answered, not yet realizing where this was going. “No,” she said, “you must re-analyze your gas.” 

Divers picking up their tanks and analyzing gas at the “Tech Block.” Photo by Michael Mednuno.

WHAT!#@? I just did. OK, I was a bit perturbed but reluctantly reanalyzed my gas; didn’t want to push the point with my new team. The gas hadn’t changed, and this time I correctly applied the new labels. 

With later reflection, I realized my tech sister was absolutely right and I was glad that she spoke up, and that I complied. Do you know how many of our tribe have died breathing the wrong gas at depth? Answer: Way too frigging many! 

I’m reminded of a recent post that the human Lock recently re-tweeted—a  post from Lt. Gen. David Morrison, “The standard you walk past is the one that you accept!” It’s a matter of building safe habits and a fail-safe system to catch our humanness. I mean I knew what was in my bottles, but if someone else had used them, for whatever reason, they wouldn’t, would they? In fact, after that I made it a point to ask Heléné when I had a question of protocol or procedure. She was always helpful.

Ironically, we shared the tech boat with a NAUI Tec team from Argentina headed by NAUI greybeard, Daniel “Dani” Millikovsky, along with instructor Ken Head from Texas. I learned that they were also diving their own standard config, standard gasses, and runtime tables generated by RGBM algorithm. They wrote their runtime schedule down on the wrist slates. Completely different from GUE of course that mandates Halcyon WetNotes!  

Just kidding! It was clear to me that our commonality greatly outweighed our differences, and we had a number of enlightening in-depth discussions—the subject of a future article.

Community Safety

SubGravity and TEKDive USA cofounder Randy Thornton appealed to our higher angels in his talk, “Make Tech Diving Great Again.” He began with a startling statistic that the average time that a new tech diver stays in the game is two years! The Reasons: they never get truly comfortable with gear, and/or being in the water, and yet they often push themselves to do too much too fast, resulting in too much stress—all of which is NOT fun. “At the end of the day, we are here to have FUN,” he reminded us!

Thornton, who is a very experienced tech and CCR instructor, offered sound advice: learn progressively, gain experience at each level before moving on, pick the mentors you want to emulate, keep an open mind, and show up at classes ready to learn. He admonished instructors to maintain their integrity and to say, “No” if their student was not ready for the next class.


GUE Seattle deep-diving team exiting the water after diving on the Windjammer.

Not one to preach what he doesn’t practice, Thornton, who during his pre-diving career put in his 10k hours as a professional musician, shared that he takes a new class every year and makes it a point to dive with other age groups and training agencies. “Mastery is just a momentary point in time,” he observed. “It’s the process that’s important.” 

Finally, he thoughtfully reminded us about the use of social media and implored us to just say “NO” to cyberbullying. “We need to be sharing information and knowledge and celebrating each other’s successes, not running each other down,” he emphasized, offering mountain biking forums as an example of communities that are doing it right. 

Here was my favorite anecdote in his talk: 

There was a farmer who won the award for the best corn year in and year out. A reporter discovered he shared his seed corn each year with his neighbors. “How can you afford to share your best corn with your neighbors when they compete with you each year?” the reporter asked. ‘Why sir,” said the farmer,” Didn’t you know that wind picks up pollen from the ripening corn and swirls it from field to field. If my neighbors grow inferior corn, cross-pollination will steadily degrade the quality of my corn. If I am to grow good corn, I must help my neighbors to do the same. 

In other words, you have to give it away to keep it! Thornton ended with a depthful plea, “Share with others through mentoring and giving back, and help build our community.” Amen.

Silent Diving’s founder and president, Mike Fowler, gave the final presentation titled, “How Do We Make Diving Safer?” He began by reviewing the grim statistics on rebreather diving deaths; 317 deaths from 1998-2018, 146 from 2010-2018 or about 16/year. Fifty-five percent were solo diving, 30% failed to monitor their sensors and or ignored warnings, 30% conducted poor assembly and pre-dive checks, the list goes on. 

Fowler then discussed the role of “human or non-technical factors” in these incidents and offered the Rebreather Education and Safety Association (RESA)’s 10 Point Plan. One of his comments stuck with me, “If there’s any doubt, there is!”

Sadly, a very visible and loved member of our community who was an experienced rebreather diver, anesthesiologist and hyperbaric doctor Fiona Sharp died in Bonaire on a solo rebreather dive, a few days after the event ended, in what appears to be a result of human factors. See the accompanying article, “Fiona SharpYou Will Be Sorely Missed!,” in this issue.

To honor our dear sister’s passing, Mr. G has decided to dedicate next year’s Bonaire Tek 2020 to improving diving safety. It’s something we can’t get enough of. Hope to see you there next year.

Additional Resources:

Dive photographer, Matthias Lebo.

Award-winning underwater cinematographer Matthias Lebo, who is based in Zurich, Switzerland, produced a series of videos of the event. The Croatian born filmmaker spent most of his twenties traveling the world – primarily Australia, South East Asia and Europe – working as a Scuba Diving Instructor, intensifying his love and appreciation for the ocean. Lebo operates a small film production company named “Liquid Images.” He’s made it his mission to show as many people as possible the beauty and wonders of the underwater world. He hopes to raise awareness of how fragile our marine ecosystem is. You can also find him on Facebook. Enjoy!

Bonaire Tek Final Recap Vid of the Week

Bonaire Tek Day 1 

Bonaire Tek Day 2

Bonaire Tek Day 3

Bonaire Tek Day 4 

Bonaire Tek Day 5 


Michael Menduno is InDepth’s executive editor and, an award-winning reporter and technologist who has written about diving and diving technology for 30 years. He coined the term “technical diving.” His magazine “aquaCORPS: The Journal for Technical Diving”(1990-1996), helped usher tech diving into mainstream sports diving. He also produced the first Tek, EUROTek, and ASIATek conferences, and organized Rebreather Forums 1.0 and 2.0. Michael received the OZTEKMedia Excellence Award in 2011, the EUROTek Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012, and the TEKDive USA Media Award in 2018.

Community

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.



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!

Additional Resources:

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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