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Cheers! Alcoholic beverages in space

One of a dozen bottles of wine being prepared for launch to the ISS on the latest Cygnus cargo mission earlier this month. (credit: Space Cargo Unlimited)

On November 2, 12 bottles of Bordeaux wine were launched to the International Space Station (ISS). These bottles are not intended for holiday celebrations by the crew, however (consumption of alcohol is officially prohibited in space.) Instead. the bottles are part of an experiment conducted by the University of Bordeaux’s Institute of Vine and Wine Science (ISVV) and a company called Space Cargo Unlimited to investigate if the aging process of wine is affected by microgravity conditions.

As novel as this experiment sounds, the Bordeaux team is not the first group to examine how alcoholic beverages age in space. That distinction is held by two whisky producers, one in Scotland, the other in Japan. In 2011, Scotch whisky producer Ardbeg partnered with Nanoracks to launch the first whisky aging experiment in orbit. When the samples were returned to Earth in 2014, a clear difference was readily apparent from the control samples that remained on Earth—and not for the better. According to an Ardbeg white paper, the aftertaste was “pungent, intense and long, with hints of wood, antiseptic lozenges and rubbery smoke.” However, Ardbeg was not certain if this was a result of the aging process or other extreme factors that the samples encountered.

In 2015, Japanese whisky producer Suntory also launched whisky samples to be aged on the ISS. One batch of these samples returned to Earth for analysis after a year in orbit, but another batch still remains on the station. Thus far, Suntory has not released any data from these experiments.

It’s not only whisky and wine producers interested in utilizing space to produce their products. At South by Southwest in Austin, Texas in 2017, American beer giant Budweiser announced it wanted to be the first beer producer on Mars. This wasn’t merely a publicity stunt. Since then, Budweiser has sent three barley experiments to the ISS. In a press release, Budweiser Vice President Ricardo Marques stated, “With this bold, new dream Budweiser is celebrating the entrepreneurial spirit in which our iconic brand was founded upon. Through our relentless focus on quality and innovation, Budweiser can today be enjoyed in every corner of the world, but we now believe it is time for the King of Beers to set its sights on its next destination. When the dream of colonizing Mars becomes a reality, Budweiser will be there to toast the next great step for mankind.”

People will unquestionably argue whether alcohol should be produced or consumed in space, but as private space enterprises and space tourism move forward, it becomes inevitable that alcohol will eventually be consumed and manufactured in space. To be clear, cosmonauts and astronauts have been consuming small amounts of alcohol in space for many years (as discussed in the new book Alcohol in Space.) However, and regardless of the perennial debate on the use of alcohol in society (and whether it is safe in space), the growing interest in space experiments and production from the alcohol industry is an intriguing development that could play an increasingly positive role in space exploration well beyond the ability to have a drink on the Moon or Mars. As the alcohol industry and other entities pursue technologies and methods harnessing the space environment, they are also helping to enable a sustainable human presence in space.

For example, as companies like Budweiser start investing in agricultural experiments in space, it represents a direct investment towards enabling long-term human habitation away from the relative safety of Earth. There have been several projects around the world that have experimented with the growth of barley, hops, and other traditional beer and alcohol-related crops in simulated Mars and Moon regolith.

The alcohol industry is not just pursuing agricultural endeavors. While not as significant a necessity as agriculture, one of the challenges being investigated relates to carbonated beverages such as beer and Champagne. On Earth, the gas in carbonated beverages rises to the top of the drink and disperses into the atmosphere. However, this does not occur in the microgravity environment in space. Those gas bubbles tend to converge in the center of the drink. This phenomenon also occurs in your stomach. As a result, astronauts have reported stomach cramps and wet burbs after consuming carbonated beverages—not the experience that beverage producers would hope to produce.

This problem has generated international interest. French Champagne producer Maison Mumm hopes to enable spacefaring bubbly drinkers to enjoy their products without the unpleasant side effects mentioned earlier. In 2018, they unveiled Mumm Grand Cordon Stellar, which is specially selected for an enjoyable drinking experience on orbit. Not only did they research which of their products would be an appropriate Champagne, but they also designed a special bottle and glass to enhance the “conviviality” of sipping their beverage.

An Australian collaborative effort has also been trying to solve the orbital carbonation issue. Saber Astronautics and 4 Pines Brewing Company teamed up to create a beer called “Vostok” with the goal of finding the right balance between carbonation and taste, enabling a pleasurable drinking experience.

The Vostok and Maison Mumm teams were able to sample their products in short periods of microgravity on parabolic flights. Perhaps more importantly, both companies have also created more efficient methods of dispensing their beverages, rather than the squeeze bottle approach that is usually employed in space. Vostok created a special insert to be used on a beer bottle and Maison Mumm designed an entire bottle specially designed for dispensing their product in microgravity. Other companies have been investigating fluid dynamics designing and building cocktail glasses as well as Scotch glasses to enable consumers to sip their drinks as they would on Earth. As the reality of private space travel and multi-year space missions appear to be closer than ever before, there are now numerous other alcohol-related space projects under way or already completed.

Unquestionably, consumption of alcohol, whether it be in space or on Earth, needs to be done responsibly, but the fact that so many companies and organizations are taking the prospects of space alcohol seriously, and also investing resources that could benefit many elements of space exploration, is a positive development. True sustainability in space will probably only occur when other “non-traditional” industries begin to invest in potential space applications, and how they may benefit their products back on Earth.

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