Review: Alcohol in Space

Alcohol in Space: Past, Present and Future
by Chris Carberry
McFarland, 2019
paperback, 217 pp., illus.
ISBN 978-1-4766-7924-2

Later this week, Budweiser is going to the International Space Station. Not the beer, mind you, but instead a barley experiment sponsored by the company, part of a set of research payloads on board the latest SpaceX Dragon cargo mission. According to the ISS National Lab, the experiment will understand how barley is affected by microgravity. “In this latest investigation,” an ISS National Lab press release last week stated, “Budweiser will examine the barley malting process, and results could have implications in food production on Earth and in space.”

And implications for alcohol production as well. Budweiser made clear in 2017 its somewhat quixotic ambition to be the first beer on Mars, and this experiment is just the latest in a series examining the issues associated with the production of beer in space, starting with the effects on ingredients like barley that have broader agricultural implications. (Whether having Budweiser on Mars would attract or discourage would-be Martian visitors is another question.)

If humanity is to have a long-term future in space, alcohol will almost certainly be a part of future bases, settlements, and other outposts in Earth orbit and beyond. That’s the message of Alcohol in Space, a new book by Chris Carberry that examines the history of space spirits and the potential for both producing and imbibing alcohol in space.

The subject, Carberry notes, is one that many, especially in government agencies, don’t like to talk about. “Unfortunately, as with the prospect of sex in space, drinking in space has become ‘taboo.’ Both are inevitable, but we find ourselves uncomfortable discussing the topic of conducting valuable research,” he writes.

There is, though, some experience with drinking in space. Soviet and Russian cosmonauts frequently smuggled cognac on their missions. There’s been no evidence that any alcohol consumption has caused health or social problems on those missions, but Carberry concedes there’s been no research on how the body metabolizes alcohol in microgravity.

Any future sustained human presence in space will have to study that, as well as how to produce alcohol in space. There have been a few initial steps towards that end, including the Budweiser barley experiments and other efforts by distillers like Ardbeg and Suntory. There have been some other efforts for terrestrial spirits with space ties, like when space tourist Greg Olson—who owns a winery in South Africa—flew grape vine root stocks on his mission to plant back on Earth. The root stocks didn’t survive the trip, but he did bring with him 500 wine labels he places on otherwise terrestrial bottles of wine.

The idea of making and/or drinking alcohol in space can seem like a trivial topic compared to issues like studying the universe or humanity’s future in space. But wherever humans go, alcohol will be there—a point Carberry drives home in the first chapters that examine the history of alcohol and alcohol’s role in science fiction. That creates a bit of a slow start to the book, but it reinforces the point of how central alcohol is to society, be it on Earth or in space.

Carberry, in the book’s conclusion, thinks the growing commercial space industry, with plans for private space stations and interest in new markets, provides an opportunity for alcohol in space to flourish. (Government space stations are likely to remain dry—at least officially—for the foreseeable future, he acknowledges.) So, perhaps one day, Budweiser will achieve its goal of being the first beer on Mars—even if residents there prefer the local Martian moonshine.

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