The Many (Some Gross) Challenges of Enjoying Beer in Space
published during a waxing crescent moon.
03/30/2017

It was, on the surface, yet another in the long line of marketing stunts by beer companies seeking to take advantage of our fascination with the cosmos: At a South by Southwest panel in March, Budweiser announced it was planning to explore ways to brew beer on Mars. The panel included Kate Mara, one of the stars of the movie The Martian, as well as former astronaut Clayton Anderson.

“It’s a dream that builds off of our relentless focus on innovation,” proclaimed Budweiser vice president Richard Marques. “When we can enjoy a few ice-cold Buds on the Red Planet, that will be the moment when we can truly realize our dreams of space colonization.”

But Budweiser insists there is a real scientific initiative beyond the bold proclamations—at some point if we do reach Mars and begin to colonize it, we’ll have to figure out a way to import our creature comforts with us. And one of those primary comforts is beer. Which is why Budweiser is hoping to use laboratories on the International Space Station to study how it might improve its products.

enjoying beer

Astronaut Clayton Anderson, Kate Mara, and ISS staff on a panel at SXSW 2017 discussing Bud’s plans for Mars. Credit: Budweiser

For years, various scientists and companies have experimented with the possibilities of “space beer.” Sapporo brewed a beer with barley grown on the International Space Station in 2008; some fans of Natural Light beer launched a can into space in 2011, reaching an altitude of 90,000 feet; and Oregon brewery Ninkasi launched yeast into space and then used it to brew a batch of beer in 2015. Years before all those things happened, graduate student Kirsten Sterrett, working with Coors Brewing Company, sent a miniature brewing kit into orbit with a space shuttle; the beer didn’t taste great, though, and while it appeared to have many of the same properties as beer brewed on earth, the percentage of live cells in the yeast was far lower. It was almost as if the yeast became “stressed” in some way.

“Yeast doesn’t seem to do well (in space),” says Ethan Tsai, an assistant chemistry professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver who instructs in the school’s beer industry operations program.

And so the challenges of actually getting to the point where we can both brew and drink beer either in space or on Mars, experts say, face some daunting obstacles. The idea, Anderson admitted during Budweiser’s panel discussions, “poses considerable technical challenges.” And none is larger than the challenges presented by a zero-gravity environment. “The flippant answer to everything is to institute some sort of gravity,” Tsai tells NOW.SPACE. “Any sort of gravity gives you a frame of reference.”

But without any sort of gravity, the problems are multitudinous. How would you store the beer? How would you keep the carbonation inside? “When you have a Budweiser, and you pop the top (of the bottle), the pressure inside is higher than outside, so things will happen,” Anderson said. “In space, it ‘pops,’ and then maybe you’d need to clean everything. That would be an interesting dilemma to solve.”

On this front, some progress has already been made: Coca-Cola has been conducting experiments since 1985 when they first introduced a “space can” aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger. A pressurized container to evenly distribute the carbonation might be the best solution, and Coke conducted an experiment in 2001 in which they dispensed their soda into a collapsible bag inside a plastic bottle. That may solve the containment issue. But what about actually drinking it?

But what about actually drinking it?

This is where things could get kind of gross, at least in space. Because if you do drink a beer in a zero-gravity environment, Tsai says, you’re swallowing those carbonated bubbles, but then when you inevitably belch those bubbles back up, there’s no gravity to draw the liquid to the bottom of your stomach and move the gasses to the top. So you wind up belching up liquid with them. “It’s like having acid-reflux disease,” Tsai says. One potential solution to those so-called “wet burps” —  Reduce the carbonation, as Australian company 4-Pines Brewing did with its “space beer.”

The good news is that once we do get to Mars, it does at least have a microgravity environment—it’s approximately one-third of earth’s gravity, but it should be enough to work with. There is the possibility of utilizing the carbon dioxide in Mars’s atmosphere to brew beer: Robert Zubrin, president of the Mars Society, invented a “mobile cart” that can help harvest and store carbon-dioxide gas for the purposes of (among other things) brewing beer. Beyond that, we’d also have to find a way to either import war or tap into Mars’ ice and learn how to grow grains like malt, rice, and hops either on Mars or in a nearby spacecraft.

Still, Tsai says, the good news is that as long as we have some sort of gravity, we should be able to find a way to make it work. And if Budweiser is willing to pour money into finding solutions, beer lovers certainly aren’t going to argue.“Beer is beer,” Tsai says. He compares it to the way the military works so hard to make its rations look and taste like “real food”—because it makes the soldiers happier. “And very simply, (beer) makes your astronauts happy.”

As of now, NASA “is and has been opposed to alcohol in space missions due to potential safety issues,” Vickie Kloeris, subsystem manager for ISS food systems at the Johnson Space Center, recently told Inverse. This makes sense, given that we don’t know how beer might affect our sobriety levels in a micro-gravity or zero-gravity atmosphere, and given that astronauts may have flown while intoxicated in the past. But someday, as space travel becomes more normalized, NASA may have to relax those rules. Because who doesn’t want a happy astronaut? And who can imagine celebrating a future on the red planet without popping a cold one?

“Is it a gimmick? From the standpoint that it’s going to drive sales, it’s a gimmick,” Tsai says. “But the fact is, if we colonize Mars, people are going to want beer.”