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Space Beer – Light Beer at Zero Gravity

I’m digging the newest light beer on the market. As a beer with mass, but not a mass-market beer, this rookie is so light it is totally weightless – in space, that is. In the style of a Dry Irish Stout, it grabs the taste-buds with the rich, roasty flavors of coffee and chocolate, with a slight edge of smoke. This prized beer won Silver Medals at the Australian International Beer Awards in both 2010 and 2011. It was also awarded a Bronze Medal, in 2011, at the Sydney Royal Beer Competition, organized by the Royal Agricultural Society of New South Wales, Australia.

Vostok 4 Pines Stout, now in a version called Vostok Space Beer, gives a whole new meaning to the term Light Beer. In a collaborative effort between 4 Pines Brewing Company of Manly Beach, near Sydney, and Saber Astronautics of Australia, Space Beer has been designed to be consumed in zero-gravity conditions for the newly burgeoning commercial space flight industry.

In your high school history classes, you may recall that beer has been around since the earliest cultures of mankind, documented in ancient petroglyphs within the Ice-Age caves of Les Trois Frères in Font de Gaume, France. (What? Your teacher skipped that part?)

Professor Solomon Katz of the University of Pennsylvania, and Patrick E. McGovern, Scientific Director at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia, both assert that these petroglyphs, combined with the analyses of residue found in ancient serve-ware, paint a fascinating picture of mankind’s involvement with beer from its early beginnings.

As civilization developed, beer was the catalyst for the invention of the straw. Artisans fashioned drinking vessels of gold, carnelian and onyx during the Bronze Age. Societies assigned royal status to women who brewed for their ancient cities. When one of these brewsters passed into the afterlife, her servants were buried in “death pits” such as the one found in the tomb of Queen PuAbi of the ancient city of Ur, discovered near the Persian Gulf in modern-day Iraq.

During the 19th century, India Pale Ale was developed to withstand long sea voyages to the outposts of the British Empire. Designed with high alcohol and massive amounts of hops, these beers had great preservative character and extended the average 3-year mortality rate of new arrivals to normal levels of life-expectancy. As your history teacher pointed out (or should have), man’s ingenuity at developing a beer with purpose propels the human race forward.

With commercial space flight poised to launch in 2012, the need for culinary pleasure is on the horizon. Seven tourists have already taken round-trip flights to the International Space Station, paying tourism company, Space Adventures, flight fees of $20-35 million for the adventurous space tour.

But the ticket price for a 2012 flight currently draws a mere $200,000. You may scoff at the still-hefty price tag paid by the newest space travelers who have the means to pay the price; but these are people who have tasted the finest treasures on Earth, and they will want to enjoy space travel, stress-free, with a delicious brew in their hands.

This is easier said than done. There are challenges such as wet burps, swollen tongues, a diminished sense of taste, and the sudden effects of blood alcohol content when back on mother Earth. Although alcohol is banned from NASA space missions and on the International Space Station, rumors – indicating the rules may have already been “bent” – drift through the aeronautical community, on occasion. How else would NASA know about wet burps?

Wet burps were never a problem for Han Solo in the Star Wars saga, but with today’s Earth beer, wet burps in weightless conditions prove that “holding your liquor” can be impossible. Sexy, it is not.

Carbonation in beer is a product of fermentation, produced when sugars are consumed by hungry yeast. In the process, yeasts convert these sugars into alcohol and carbon dioxide. This carbon dioxide remains in beer, causing an effervescent tingle on the tongue that gives beer interest. On the Earth’s surface, beer that enters the stomach separates into liquid and gas, and the expanded gases are expelled through the mouth, often in the form of a hugely audible burp (much to the satisfaction of the Neanderthals that still roam the planet.)

In weightless conditions, the gases and liquid do not separate; but the human body still needs to expel the gas component of beer. This happens as a wet burp – the gas molecules are suspended within liquid that can exit the nose and mouth without any chance of holding it back. Not a pretty sight!

Dr. Jason Held, Director of Saber Astronautics, an engineering firm specializing in the space industry, fully understood the challenges inherent in creating a beer for weightless conditions. As one who appreciated the rich flavors in artisanal craft beer, he targeted 4 Pines Brewing Company as premier craft brewers and approached owner Jaron Mitchell to work with him on the venture. This new space beer needed to retain a low-level of carbonation; otherwise, it would lose interest as a beer. With a bit of enhanced intensity, a beer with already robust flavor would remain on the palate for a pleasant finish at 0 G’s.

In weightless conditions, the tongue swells, preventing beer from entering the taste buds which ordinarily analyze and enjoy flavor. Sensitivity to flavor diminishes with prolonged exposure to weightless conditions. In space, crisp and flavorful becomes stale and papery.

The Stout style of beer has the ability to withstand conditions in a changing environment, making it ideal for space flight. A careful selection of malts can create fuller flavor and creamy character, while a low level of carbonation is common to the style. In November of 2010, it was ready to begin trials in zero gravity.

Astronauts4Hire was selected to conduct tests in a specially-modified Boeing 727 through the Zero Gravity Corporation. An expert in the field of microgravity, with experience in over 300 weightless flights, was chosen to drink Space Beer, while being subjected to gravities ranging from 1.8 G’s (double what we feel on Earth) to 0 G’s (weightlessness). It was a tough gig. He endured this punishment 15 times in a row, while drinking 6 samples of beer that amounted to about 30 ounces of beer. During the trial, he measured his own skin temperature and heart rate, took breathalyzer tests, and recorded the measurements while keeping the beer from bubbling all over the cabin. On 26 February 2011, the tests were complete, giving a green light to the recipe as a viable candidate for dining in space.

The challenge of getting the beer out of the bottle still needs to be addressed. Our hero had to repeatedly shake the container while it was in his mouth to get the beer, since there is no gravity or surface tension to help in a zero-gravity spacecraft. And since the body doesn’t absorb alcohol as readily at high altitudes as it does on Earth, more testing needs to be done before it is ready for prime time.

In the meantime, Australian beerlovers have access to 4 Pines Stout, Earth version, as they dream of their own possibilities to be lost in space with a new slogan. Got beer?

Cheers!

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