19 May 11 Going where no beer has gone before
Wherever man has ventured, beer has followed. Now, two Australian entrepreneurs hope that will include space. Looking ahead to a future of growing space tourism, they have developed a full-bodied brew they believe can stand up to the trials of imbibing in space, including swelling tongues that diminish the sense of taste.
“It’s going to be the first beer that will be specifically designed to be drunk in zero gravity with upcoming space tourism,” said Jaron Mitchell, who owns the 4 Pines Brewing Company, a microbrewery.
Mitchell and Jason Held, at space engineering firm Saber Astronautics Australia, have developed the Vostok 4 Pines Stout, which they aim to take where no beer has gone before.
They believe they are ahead of the curve, noting that the Russians – known to enjoy the occasional tipple – are already taking rich tourists into space and British businessman Richard Branson is building the infrastructure for his own space tourism business, Virgin Galactic.
The two decided that a full-bodied, flavoursome, stout-style beer would work best to counter the loss of taste sensation that takes place when the tongue swells in space.
“Your face puffs out a little bit, your tongue swells up a little bit – it’s not extreme, but kind of like having a bad head cold,” Held said.
“So we wanted to have a flavour that would be strong enough, that would punch through that.”
Once the prototype was developed, the two bought space on a zero gravity flight over Florida to test it, recruiting a microgravity expert from the non-profit organisation Astronauts4Hire as test subject.
Although the tester managed to consume nearly a litre of the beer during weightless portions of the flight, keeping the bottle to his mouth proved a major challenge.
Coaxing the beer from the bottle was another.
“If you look at a beer glass, you’ve got gravity pulling the liquid down and you have surface tension pulling the liquid to the side,” Held said.
“So if you drink, it’s very easy… the beer goes right up to the edge of the glass and then comes down. In space this isn’t quite so easy because there is no gravity pulling the liquid down.”
With only surface tension operating in space, this means a glass can be turned over and the liquid will still stay in.
“You could see in the flight experiment where the test subject was flying and he was trying to get the liquid down his mouth. He is really having to shake it as he drinks it,” Held said, noting that a different receptacle has to be designed.
While tests showed the current recipe works for space, more experiments are planned – including the actual impact on the body of alcohol drunk in low gravity, given that even plane flights change how alcohol is absorbed.
Finally, there is the problem of carbonation.
Since the bubbles and the liquid don’t separate well in zero gravity there’s no real place for the gas of the carbonation to go – except in what Held called a “wet burp,” with both the gas and the liquid coming out together, which he said was uncomfortable.
“At the end of the day you could have a beer with no bubbles, but it doesn’t taste very good because it’s really just an alcoholic tea,” he said.
“We didn’t want to do that to the astronauts.”