Can We Brew Beer in Space?

January 28, 2020

By Diana Hubbell, January 28, 2020

In the midst of his own Senate impeachment trial last week, President Donald Trump unveiled the logo of the U.S. Defense Department’s new Space Force program via Twitter. Reactions to the new sixth military branch, which was officially signed into existence on December 20, 2019, have been, well, mixed. Experts have called it a “distraction” and a “bureaucratic nightmare,” while those of us who grew up watching William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy can’t help but notice an uncanny resemblance to Starfleet Command’s logo from the original Star Trek series.

Aside from the fact that it's a waste of resources from a department with a $738 billion budget, the concept of a militarized “Space Force” throws into question what the United States should be doing up in the final frontier anyway. Yes, we got into the game mostly to beat the Soviets during the Cold War, but since then, the role of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has been one of scientific exploration, often in collaboration with other nations. It’s an ethos far more closely aligned with the 1966 television show’s quasi-utopian vision, one that’s led to all kinds of remarkable discoveries, including most recently an Earth-like planet orbiting our Sun’s nearest neighboring star. 

So while the top brass are busy designing camouflage fatigues for Space Force—a move absurd enough to earn ridicule from cast members from Star Wars and Star Trek—the actual scientists are focusing instead on the innate sense of wonder that caused humanity to look up at the stars in the first place. Given its proximity in our night sky, many of the scientific community’s questions remain fixed on Mars. Could there once have been life there? Will humans one day be able to colonize it? And, most importantly, if we do, will there be beer there? 

To clarify, there is no beer in space at the moment. After a 2007 report found two incidents of astronauts allegedly flying while intoxicated, NASA clamped down hard on booze in orbit. In fact, because carbonated beverages behave so strangely in zero gravity, they’re not allowed on the International Space Station at all. If you were to drink a beer in space, the bubbles would just sit there in the liquid solution rather than rising to create a frothy head. Given that it costs $10,000 a pound just to haul materials up there, you can understand why NASA decided to leave the pints back on the Earth’s surface.

Nevertheless, if we ever do make it all the way to the Red Planet, there’s good reason to be optimistic about our chances of making beer up there. Edward F. Guinan, a professor of astrobiology and astrophysics at Villanova University, has been conducting experiments on growing crops in simulated Martian conditions with students. While many students opted to grow nutrient-dense plants like kale or potatoes à la Matt Damon in The Martian, some had other ideas.

Courtesy of Edward GuinanHops growing in simulated Martian conditions.

“One group called ‘Hopping on Mars’ grew hops. They wanted to make beer ingredients, because these are college kids, so I let them do it,” Guinan says. “A lot of plants, like peas, didn’t flower because of the low light conditions, but the hops did fabulously. They actually grew to the ceiling.”

In order to approximate the surface of Mars on Earth, Guinan used an iron-rich simulation of Martian soil based mostly on dirt from the Mojave desert. Real Martian soil contains trace amounts of toxic perchlorates, which affect the thyroid gland. Some promising experiments have shown that certain bacteria may be able to break down perchlorates; however, Guinan figured it was better to leave them out of the equation entirely rather than put students at risk. 

Since Mars only receives 43 percent of the sunlight Earth does, Guinan used a light meter to make sure that the class’s greenhouse accurately represented Martian conditions. After introducing worms into the hard, nutrient-poor soil to fertilize it, Guinan and the students managed to successfully grow hops and a modest amount of barley.

“The bottom line is if you wanted to invest the resources, it can be done. We don’t think the lower gravity would impact the fermentation process,” Guinan says. “The interest level was crazy—one company approached us to see if they could use some of our hops for a ‘Martian beer.’”

Since his initial experiments, Guinan has been approached by media outlets from Australia to the Czech Republic. So many people have asked about the project that he’s hoping to take things to the next level this year. To date, his efforts have only produced enough barley for about a glass of beer, but he hopes to increase that. 

“So this summer, we’re going to try and grow enough to make a few liters of beer. We have beer labels and names of beer,” Guinan says. “I have a friend who’s a brewer coming in. We’re going to try and go with 100-percent ‘Martian’ barley and hops.”

Guinan and his students aren’t the only ones fascinated by the prospect of brewing beer beyond the confines of Earth’s atmosphere. On December 5, 2019, AB InBev (an investor in October) sent a three-ton beer-malting contraption with barley seeds up on the SpaceX to test the effects of zero-gravity on germination. In the past, 4 Pines Brewing Company teamed up with Saber Aeronautics to launch a crowdfunding campaign to fund a space-brewed beer and to commemorate the opening of BrewDog Berlin, the Scottish brewery launched a Dortmunder Export into the stratosphere, just because.

Brewing in orbit or on extraterrestrial planets is never going to be pragmatic, but at least it is very much in the spirit of discovery. If the government really has $40 million to spend on a Space Force, surely some of that could go towards ensuring beer goes where no beer has gone before.

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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