“She’s a yeast whisperer.”
A phrase rarely used in daily exchange, but appropriate for describing someone deemed most fit to tackle the extraction of yeast from a 180-year-old bottle of Madeira wine that came from the time period and general area of avid Madeira-drinker John Marshall, the fourth chief justice of the United States.
Danny Fain of Ardent Craft Ales contacted his aptly named friend, Angie Hilliker, a biology professor at University of Richmond, after the John Marshall House in Richmond came to the brewery inquiring about potentially concocting a beer for them.
“Originally the John Marshall house came to Ardent to ask if we could brew a beer for them because they know that beer’s a really big thing in Richmond and I think they had heard about how I love history beer,” Fain said. “And just in passing, they mentioned that they had this Madeira bottle that was almost 200 years old, and we just got to talking about the availability of using that bottle in a project, and I instantly thought of Angie.”
Hilliker and Fain’s children are good friends. The two live in the same neighborhood, and Fain is familiar with Hilliker’s lab, which studies how cells make proteins with yeast as her model because of the organism’s molecular similarity to humans. Hilliker is even more suitable for the job because she is on sabbatical and has previously taught classes on brewing beer.
“If anyone could do this,” Fain said, “she was the first one I thought of.”
The goal of this project is to extract yeast from the bottles and use it to create a beer inspired by Marshall and his beloved Madeira.
Marshall, known as the “Great Chief Justice,” served from 1801 to 1835. He had a major role in creating the modern Supreme Court and effectively established the principle of judicial review with his instrumental decision in Marbury v. Madison. He also loved Madeira. According to records from the John Marshall House, Marshall frequently shared the Portuguese wine with friends at his Richmond home.
Madeira is a fortified, sweet wine with a history of its own because it was an ever-present drink during the beginnings of the U.S.
“Madeira was huge in the founding of our country,” Hilliker said. “Our founding fathers happened to be big fans of it. Apparently, the Declaration of Independence was toasted with Madeira, now at least according to Wikipedia.”
When Hilliker joined the project, she knew that trying to crack open these historical artifacts for scientific purposes would pose many problems.
“The challenge is that the bottles are 180 years old, they’re corked and then they’re covered in sealed wax with an impression in it,” Hilliker said. “From the point of view of the John Marshall House, it’s really rare to have an intact bottle of alcohol that still has liquid in it, and so they want to preserve the artifact, and I want to get to the stuff inside.”
Hilliker knew that uncorking the bottle would not work, so she started brainstorming a solution.
“I can’t just uncork it, because that would ruin the cork and the seal,” Hilliker said. “So, we’ll make small holes in the wax at the edge with a warm needle and then we can heal those.”
The needles she will use are the same type of long and sharp needles doctors use in spinal taps. They also have a metal shaft to make sure they cannot fill with cork or allow for gas exchange with the environment.
Ultimately, Hilliker will use two needles. One will be connected to a syringe that will suck out some of the wine, and the other will be connected to equipment that will pump nitrogen into the bottle to maintain the bottle’s pressure. Nitrogen is the gas of choice because it is the most prominent gas in the atmosphere and will already be present within the bottle.
If Hilliker finds any live yeast in the wine, she will then place it onto a plate with sterile media or, in her words, “chocolate cake for yeast,” to feed the yeast and help it grow.
“All I need is a cell or two to capture onto one of these plates and we’ll have material to work with,” Hilliker said. “What we’re going to do, if we get anything to grow, is we’re going to analyze its DNA to figure out what species it is.”
Identifying the species of yeast is important for Hilliker because she needs to make sure it is safe to use. If the yeast is safe, she will then experiment to see whether the yeast is a good fermenter, and potentially train the yeast to be better at fermentation so Ardent can use it to brew.
Although she recognized that live yeast would be ideal, Hilliker gave assurance that there was still hope if the yeast were dead.
“If we get nothing to grow, all is not lost,” Hilliker said. “That bottle for sure has yeast in it, it just might be dead.”
If the yeast is dead, Hilliker can isolate its DNA and analyze it to figure out the species and potentially sequence its genes.
“Whatever’s in the bottle is most likely not a novel species, but an ancestor of a species that we already know exists,” Hilliker said. “So, if we can’t get the ancestor to grow, we can use its modern-day descendant.”
Knowing this project would benefit from involving someone with a different area of expertise, Hilliker enlisted the help of Kristine Nolin, a chemistry professor at UR.
“She’s going to analyze the chemicals in the wine and compare it to modern-day Madeira so we can see what are the similarities, what are the differences,” Hilliker said. “It might give us some clues about how the wine was made and what were the major flavor components of the wine.”
Nolin said she was coming from the chemistry point of view for this project in comparison to Hilliker’s more biology-based view.
“Whereas Dr. Hilliker is going to be looking at trying to isolate the spores and regrow the yeast, I am going to be coming from the angle of trying to identify what is in the wine itself,” Nolin said.
Overall, the collaborators for the project are excited about both its historical and scientific aspects, they said.
“We’re taking an artifact and cracking it open in a way and peering into the past,” Hilliker said.
Fain shared that sentiment, and added that people are fascinated by all the different pieces of the project.
“A lot of people are interested in all the aspects of it,” Fain said. "Not just me brewing a beer with it, but also the chemical analysis of the yeast that was being used 200 years ago.”
Contact features co-editor Abby Seaberg at firstname.lastname@example.org.