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Recycled beer and ancient wine

by Brianna Barbu
August 14, 2022 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 100, Issue 28


Sustainable sewer sips

A photo of NEWBrew blonde ale.
Credit: Brewerkz
Conservation on tap: Breweries around the world are using their products to promote water recycling.

Singapore beer maker Brewerkz’s NEWBrew tropical blonde ale made international brew news for its unconventional water source: recycled wastewater.

NEWater, the national brand of recycled water, has been a part of Singapore’s water supply since 2003. Reclaimed water from homes and businesses goes through ultrafiltration, reverse osmosis, and ultraviolet disinfection to make it fit for human consumption. People have generally accepted it in their tap water, Brewerkz executive director Wee-Tuck Tan tells Newscripts in an email. “No one really thinks twice about it.”

But with NEWBrew, the goal was to actually get people to think about it to increase public acceptance of recycled water. What better way to showcase quality sustainable water, Brewerkz thought, than with a high-quality sustainable alcoholic beverage?

Brewerkz first debuted a NEWBrew India pale ale at an event for Singapore’s International Water Week in 2018. It was an instant hit. “People kept asking for more,” Tan says. So the company released a new limited-edition NEWBrew for this year’s water week. The three can designs pay homage to Singaporean water landmarks.

Brewerkz is the first brewery in Asia to use recycled water, according to Tan, but it’s not alone in the world in getting creative with water in the name of sustainability. Brewery partnerships in multiple countries, including Sweden, Germany, and the US, have also produced wastewater beer in the hopes of making people aware of water recycling.

“Even the water we take out of our tap came from somewhere first,” says Christine O’Grady of Advancing Canadian Water Assets, a water treatment research facility in Calgary, Alberta. ACWA teamed up with a local brewery in 2020 to make a recycled-​water ale. “It’s all treated water, ultimately.”

Judging by how fast NEWBrew sold out, people mostly care if the water makes great beer. “We would probably have made a lot more NEWBrew if we had known,” Tan says.


The proof is in the pollen

An ancient roman amphora that may have once stored wine.
Credit: Shutterstock
Pitch perfect: Pine pitch was used in Roman times to seal wine jars and sometimes to flavor the contents.

For many people, the word pollen conjures up less-than-fond memories of hay fever. But as it turns out, pollen’s usefulness to archaeology is nothing to sneeze at. Scientists from Sapienza University and Avignon University recently reported how they used pollen—and some analytical chemistry—to uncork information about ancient Roman wine jars (PLOS One 2022, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0267129).

“It’s amazing how much information you could get from pollen,” Louise Chassouant, who worked on the research as a PhD student, tells Newscripts.

Chassouant and her fellow artifact researchers looked at three amphorae—large clay jars used in ancient Greek and Roman times for transporting products like olive oil or wine—found in the sea near San Felice Circeo, Italy, a harbor town about 90 km southeast of Rome.

They analyzed scrapings from inside the jars by gas chromatography and mass spectrometry, which showed traces of organic acids commonly found in fermented grapes, confirming that the jars had been used for wine. Chemical markers also showed that one jar had contained red wine and the other two held white wine.

Even juicier insights were revealed by looking at pollen particles and other microscopic traces of plant matter extracted from the pine resin used to seal the jars. The scientists were able to figure out that the grapes had been a local species. Meanwhile, the pine pollen in the resin did not match any local species, suggesting that it was imported.

“The chromatographic analysis wouldn’t give us this,” Chassouant says. Although, she adds, peering at tiny bits of old plants under a microscope and trying to identify the species they came from is not for the impatient: “It was a really, really long time of observing pollen and characterizing pollen and charcoal.”

But some mysteries still surround the amphorae. Though the scientists could see that the pollen particles were sterile, they couldn’t conclusively say whether the grapevines were wild or domesticated or somewhere in between. Nor could they discern whether the jars were used for table wines or brews used for medicinal purposes.

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