The Merkle

Beer. In. Space.

Earlier this year, beer giant AB InBev – makers of Budweiser – announced it has plans to brew beer on Mars once humanity settles there. In collaboration with various research institutions and the International Space Station (ISS), AB InBev is getting closer to making its dream a reality. The ISS will participate in a study to determine what brewing would look like beyond Earth.

Beer. In. Space.

On an upcoming SpaceX cargo run to the ISS, there will be about 20 grains of brewing barley that Russian cosmonauts will germinate, care for, and eventually send back to Earth for further study. My guess is that it will be American 2-row that will be sent up.

While it remains a far cry from actually brewing a beer in space, it is an incredibly cool, necessary step for extraterrestrial brewing. While this study’s goals revolve around brewing on Mars, I started thinking about what brewing a beer from start to finish would look like in space.

Space Station Brewery

Some of our readers may know that I am a homebrewer and really appreciate the science behind brewing itself. I am also somewhat of a space nut, so I’m excited to explore this line of thought with our readers.

The experiment mentioned above will actually be huge for discovering whether or not all this is even possible, so let’s assume that it is successful. To be able to germinate and grow barley in space, a few other things would need to happen. There would have to be a massive amount of grain grown to make any sizable batch of beer, including a similar setup for growing hops. This would use up considerable resources, but probably could be done. As it happens, the ISS already grows some plants with its hydroponics system. That would have to be massively scaled up, but it shows it’s at least possible.

This is where it starts to get tricky. Grain is good, but we need malt to actually make beer. The process of malting includes allowing germination and then stopping it. The next step of malting requires that the germinated grain be dried and toasted. The duration of said toasting will directly affect the color and notes of the malt. This may be hard without sufficient room. Another issue is that malt is somewhat dusty, which could spell disaster for electrical equipment. There would need to be a good HVAC system installed to capture all the floating particles.

Here is where things start to get really interesting. Water in space globs together and/or on surfaces because of a lack of gravity and water’s surface tension. Mashing (the process of heating malt to activate enzymes to convert starch into fermentable sugar) could be done somewhat easily. It could stay enclosed, and that would probably help maintain the small temperature window necessary for successful mashing.

The resulting liquid is called “wort”, and it would need to be pumped out – separating the spent malt from the sugary liquid – of its “mash tun” and into some kind of boiling device. This is where it gets hairy. You’re not really supposed to leave the top off as you boil the wort. Doing so can mess with the flavor and upset hop attenuation – hops are added at various stages of the boil, adding potentially more complexity to the setup. However, since most spacecraft already are below atmospheric pressure, there may be a way to have the boil kettle (or whatever device is used for boiling) burp itself to stay at atmospheric pressure, since I’m not sure what boiling the wort below 1 atm would do. It is possible that we would need to pressurize this a bit anyway.

So now our hypothetical boil is done, and it’s time to ferment. Moving all this into a fermenter would be easy enough, letting it cool down to a temperature where we can add yeast. I assume that this would require an actual injection of yeast as opposed to dropping it in, since I’m envisioning a floating blob in a container. Keeping it all connected would be important so that the yeast could propagate properly.

After this was done fermenting, force carbonation in kegs would be easy, but what is crazy is that we would have to adjust the internal pressure of the beer based on where it was intended to be consumed. In space? Much lower, because of relative pressure. Mars? Lower than Earth for the same reason. Earth? Regular, but anyone who tried to drink a beer meant for a different part of our solar system would either be disappointed, or covered in beer upon opening it.

I hope this article was a fun departure from heavier items relating to crypto-drama and the FCC. Here’s to you, dear readers; cheers!