Nick O / 17.04.12
Australian beer and space themes aren’t so unfamiliar to each other – we do, after all, already have Moon Dogs, Retro Rockets and supply the world with Galaxy hops. But an actual beer in space? It would seem to be the stuff of science fiction rather than something grounded in the laws of earthly physics. If you really were trying to brew a genuine space beer surely you’d need the help of, well, some sort of rocket scientist. In a quirk of fate, that’s exactly what Manly brewers 4 Pines chanced upon.
Dr Jason Held is a space engineer from Colorado and is the Director of Sabre Astronautics. He’s also a keen craft beer drinker, former home brewer and happens to reside in Manly.
As he told us: “I walked into 4 Pines, went up to the manager and said ‘I’m going to ask you a question I’ve never asked another man: Would you like your beer to be in space?’”
Needless to say, being presented with such a unique concept made it difficult to refuse. That first meeting was back in 2010 and, ever since, Sabre and 4 Pines have been working together to make the dream a reality.
As Jaron Mitchell, General Manager of 4 Pines, says: “Beer has followed humans around for the past few thousand years, so if humans are going to head into space more often I guess it’s only natural that beer will follow. We’re really excited to be part of a project like this that’s never been done before.”
The concept came about because of the way that the space travel market is changing. On the back of companies like Virgin Galactic that will offer flights and Bigelow Aerospace who have designed inflatable hotels, you’ll no longer have to be one of NASA’s ‘best of the best’ to reach space – all you’ll need is a very large wad of cash and a bit of patience; tens of thousands of people have already signed up. Quite reasonably then, it’s assumed that if people are going all the way to space for a bit of a holiday, they’d probably want to enjoy a beer while sitting and taking in the view of the earth.
“And not just any beer”, says Jason, “but a full-flavoured beer that tastes just like a craft beer you’d drink on earth."
While the concept of a space beer may seem as straightforward as packing one in your carry-on luggage, there are plenty of problems us normal earth folk would never consider.
“On earth, your body is designed to deal with things like gravity,” says Jason. “The blood flow is pulled towards your feet, whereas in space it flows freely. You get more of it to your head, which swells a bit and you can actually appear younger – it’s like a form of rejuvenation”.
While that’s clearly a cosmetic benefit, there are downsides on the palate.
“Because of the swelling, it can feel like having a mild form of a cold. Your tongue can expand and dull your sense of taste, particularly if you’ve been up there for a long time. That’s why so many astronauts return to earth and become so fond of strong-flavoured things like Tabasco and Kimchi, the Korean dish.”
The gases pose another problem. On earth, if you drink something fizzy and feel the need to burp, you easily expel the air but the liquid remains. The lack of gravity in space means that if you burp, there’s the possibility of what Jason referred to as ‘wet burps’ which, in a slightly disturbing train of thought, means you could be surrounded by floating liquid droplets from your own digestive tract. With all the science behind it, it’s slightly ironic that the crudest indicator of whether the beer passes the space test is whether or not you end up burping after drinking it. Nevertheless, when considering brewing a beer for a zero-gravity environment, these are the types of things that must be taken into account.
In order to select the right beer for the job, the team did initial trials with the full range of 4 Pines beers before settling on Stout as the most appropriate style due to its relatively low level of carbonation and full flavour. The next stage of testing was certainly far more rigorous than your usual tasting session. Three versions of the beer were taken to the Queensland University of Technology and loaded into a drop-tower, which is essentially a tall shaft where the beer is dropped and experiences near-zero gravity. According to Jason, the video recording of these tests allowed them to monitor the “physical chemical properties of the beer and how it changes based on different levels of gravity”.
Based on those results, the successful batch was taken on what the clip below suggests could be the most fun beer tasting in history. The beer was taken up on a zero-gravity commercial flight, colloquially known as the ‘Vomit Comet’, and knocked back while monitoring basic biometrics and the all-important burp test.
And after all that rigmarole we’re left with our Space Beer, based on the original 4 Pines Stout. That neatly explains why if you now buy the Stout in bottles you may notice the small logo on the label which reads ‘Vostok: Certified Space Beer’.
‘Vostok’ is a reference to the name of the spacecraft that Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin piloted in 1961 to become the first man to orbit the earth. To mark the occasion, on April 12 of each year, people in countries all around the globe gather to celebrate ‘Yuri’s Night’ and for the past couple of years 4 Pines has held one of the official events. The Manly party is a time when local space engineers, astrophysicists, academics and anyone else that’s partial to dressing up in a space costume come together to drink craft beer. Meanwhile, the Stout theme happily provided another chance to revisit the 4 Pines Keller Door series of Stouts, which were originally released for St Patrick’s Day.
While much progress has been made, the Space Beer development programme continues to refine the product, with advancements now being made on a bottle design to combat the difficulty of consuming liquid without the assistance of gravity. Based on the principle of surface tension, where liquid sticks to the side of a vessel, initial progress has been made on a bottle where the beer starts at the bottom and wicks its way up to the top. This stuff really could be mistaken for science fiction, but for Jason it’s just “good research, fun research – the first in the world. And the more you drink the better our research gets!”
For Jaron, “it’s been a wicked journey to date but it’s only going to keep on going. I guess it’s really that terrible old cliché, watch this space…”
Thanks again to Nick O for this article. Check out more of his beery musings at his blog, Water & Hops & Malt & Yeast.