Quietly sitting on a shelf in the Neville Public Museum’s permanent collection was a bottle of Rahr’s “Old Imperial Pale Beer.” Known as the
Aristocrat of Beer, this bottle caught my eye because it had never been opened. This meant that its contents could be examined to see if it harbored live yeast cells that might be coaxed out of hibernation. I had met Professor David Hunnicutt, a microbiologist from St. Norbert College and got to talking about this possible project. He was willing to give it a try, provided all the permissions were granted from the museum to release the bottle and its contents. On Friday September 9, 2016 we opened the bottle in the Microbiology and Immunology lab at St. Norbert College.
The History of Rahr's Brewery
One hundred fifty years ago, Henry Rahr established a brew house on the corner of Main Street and N. Irwin Avenue in Green Bay known as the East River Brewery. It would become the largest and most well-known historic brewery in Green Bay. Following the death of Henry Rahr in 1891 the business was passed to his sons Henry Jr. and Frederick and became Henry Rahr & Sons Co. Prior to Prohibition (pre 1920) Rahr’s was producing 60,000 barrels of beer per year. After Prohibition was repealed in 1933, the brewery was back in business and began pumping out “Standard,” “Special,” “Belgian” and “Old Imperial Pale Beer.” In 1966 the company was sold to Oshkosh Brewing Co. Exactly 100 years after opening, Rahr’s Brewery was shut down. The brewery buildings were demolished, leaving no trace behind except for Rahr’s merchandise, barrels, and bottles.
Wearing a white lab coat, Professor Hunnicutt was ready to extract the roughly eighty-year-old beer from the bottle. Under a ventilation hood, I carefully pried the cap off and immediately heard the release of carbon dioxide. This meant the bottle was properly sealed and its contents unspoiled. Stepping back, Dr. Hunnicutt and microbiology senior Alex Hupke inserted sterile pipets and transferred the beer into test tubes with various sugar solutions to invoke the yeast to regenerate. A portion was then decanted into a cylinder for testing the remaining sugars in the beer using a hydrometer. Surprisingly, the resulting measurement of 5 °Plato (1.018) meant that a fair amount of sugar remained in the beer that was not fermented. The color of the beer appeared a little darker than expected, a deep yellow to light amber color. The odor exhibited a yeast and malt profile which was also a great sign as no sour aroma was detected. Upon the writing of this article, the results of yeast growth are yet to be confirmed, but our fingers are crossed that something is still viable and therefore usable to ferment a new batch of beer. If so, we’ll be using this (or a combination) of yeast in a forthcoming Neville Cellar Series recipe, that will be a clone of the Rahr’s “Old Imperial Pale Beer” developed in collaboration with Hinterland Brewery. Details can be found here: http://www.nevillepublicmuseum.org/neville-cellar-series