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Space Beer Doesn’t Taste as Great as You Thought It Would

Last month, Yorkshire-based John Smith’s became the first brewery to send beer into space—with questionable results.

by Daniel Tapper
Aug 20 2015, 10:00am

Foto von Wagner T. Cassimiro via Flickr

Saying "this beer doesn't travel well" at your local pub is about as British as scampi and wet-look gel. In fact, if you're applying for UK citizenship, you should probably memorise that phrase right now.

But is there any truth in the adage that beer is best enjoyed close to the brewery? Eager to settle the debate once and for all, last month Yorkshire mega brewer John Smith's sent a 12-pack into space, becoming the world's first brewery to do so.

READ MORE: The World's Best Whisky Is Being Sent to the Space Station

The mission was carried out with the help of Chris Rose and Alex Baker, two scientists-turned-entrepreneurs who sent the case of Extra Smooth into space using a weather balloon. In epic scenes captured on a GoPro (which may or may not belittle the entire history of space exploration), the beer can be seen rising 37 kilometres into space—three times higher than the average commercial jet.

"The hardest bit was building a protective layer around the beer," says Rose. "The minimum temperature we recorded was minus 54 degrees Celsius and the maximum speed was 167 miles per hour. What's more, there is so little pressure in space that it could easily have caused the cans to explode."

Launched in a field near Sheffield, the helium balloon carrying the unusual cargo eventually burst at around 37,430 metres, sending the beer hurtling back to earth. It was later found in a field near York.

"God knows what any local dog walkers would have made of all of this," adds Baker. "I don't know how I'd react if I suddenly saw a load of beer casually re-entering the atmosphere on a parachute."

If you strip all the flavour and character from your beer and have no provenance or quality to speak of, then the only way you can connect with your drinkers is through gimmicks.

The question, of course, is how did all of this affect flavour? Ominously, despite its epic voyage, the beer tastes to me almost identical to any other can of mass-produced bitter, only with a little more fizz on the opening.

Why? Well, cans of John Smith's Extra Smooth are filtered, pasteurised, and artificially carbonated. While artisan brewers will tell you these three things are tantamount to treachery, they essentially bomb-proof the beer from the effects of time and temperature.

Not content with sending beer into space, John Smith's—the UK's highest selling beer brand—has also "created" and named a pint-glass shaped constellation comprising 100 stars. The brewery is offering members of the public a chance to "own" a slice of it.

"I'm not surprised that some big breweries are resorting to things like this in order to sell more beer," says beer expert Melissa Cole, author of Let Me Tell You About Beer. "If you strip all the flavour and character from your beer and have no provenance or quality to speak of, then the only way you can connect with your drinkers is through gimmicks."

Indeed British drinkers' newfound preference for such "provenance" offered by craft beer has seen an influx of new small-scale breweries and trademark applications for new beer names increase by 12 percent last year. John Smith's space stunt probably won't be the last of its kind by a big name brewer.

READ MORE: You Can Now Eat Russian Space Food—But Do You Want To?

"I have a lot of respect for the brewers themselves, who are actually really talented," says Cole. "But the corporate governance behind these brands may as well be selling nails—that's how much passion they have for the final product.'

It is not the first time a big brewer has turned to such stunts. Budweiser has experimented with everything from write-on labels to bow tie-shaped cans to help win round naysayers.

Independent brewers are at it too. The End of History, made by Scottish brewers BrewDog, was a beer with 55 percent alcohol, served in bottles made from dead stoats and squirrels. Although the beer probably did taste interesting, only 12 bottles were produced at a retail price of £500 each. As for whisky producers, last month Japanese brewery-distillery, Suntory, announced that it would send six of its whiskies to the International Space Station to perform a two-year-long study on how zero gravity environments impact the process of ageing.

We've yet to find out the results of intergalactic travel on whisky but the impact it has on beer is pretty clear: most of us would rather have a freshly poured pint of craft pilsner.