Space Beer: To the edge of our world and back

Space is awesome. No, not physical space, like your yard or loft . . . outer space. It’s a fascinating environment that humans have been studying for hundreds of years and we still haven’t unlocked one billionth of a percent of its secrets. Like, for example, how would the conditions in space impact brewer’s yeast and its ability to make beer? Now I’ve got your attention.

This photo was taken from the hydrogen balloon that carried the brewer’s yeast right to the edge of space and back. Photo courtesy of Dan Leppold

I’m a history teacher, while my friend Dan Leppold teaches science, and we like combining science and brewing. Last fall, Dan and his students were given the opportunity to send experiments into space as part of a group called Edge of Space Missions, based out of Fort Collins, Colorado. They were allotted a 2.71-lb. (1.23-kg) payload weight that would ride a hydrogen balloon into space. Yes, you can take a balloon into space.

Our students engineered the payload box to survive the trip and dreamed up experiments to go in the box for the March 2020 mission. Naturally, being a brewer, I asked Dan if there was room in his payload to send some yeast into space. I was curious if the conditions in space would affect the yeast and, let’s face it, I could say that I brewed a “Space Beer” (which needs to be said with a sci-fi twang to it). After some convincing, he finally agreed.
The harsh conditions in space would cause a liquid yeast package to expand and burst, so I chose Lallemand Nottingham yeast because it is vacuum packed and has almost no liquid in the pack. We put an 11-gram sachet in the payload and kept another from the same production lot here on Earth as a control.

The payload box, with the yeast sample safely stowed inside, travelled to an altitude of over 85,000 feet (16 miles/25.7 km) — above almost all of our atmosphere. It was subjected to intense radiation, very cold temperatures exceeding -40 °F (-40 °C), and almost-complete vacuum conditions. The camera onboard captured some stunning images of the Earth’s curvature, atmosphere, and the blackness of space. The highest speed registered by the balloon was 100 mph (160 km/hr) in the upper atmosphere where there is no air to slow it down. The balloon terminated and fell to earth, landing over 40 miles (64 km) from the launch site into a very friendly farmer’s field.

The payload box, with the yeast sample safely stowed inside, travelled to an altitude of over 85,000 feet (16 miles/25.7 km) . . .

When we got the payload back, the brewing began. I wanted to brew something that would allow any differences in fermentation to be obvious, so I chose a very light English golden ale with Challenger and Galaxy hops because, well, Space Beer! I brewed a 10-gallon (38-L) batch, split it between two fermenters and pitched the yeast directly into the wort without rehydrating. After 12 hours, both space yeast and control were bubbling away. After 5 days, they both hit a final gravity of 1.009.

About two weeks later, my homebrew club, Bruclear, organized a “socially distant,” semi-blind tasting of the beers. Tasters were poured a sample of each without knowing which was which and asked to identify any differences. Shockingly, 93% of tasters (13/14) agreed there was a difference between the beers. The consensus was the Space Beer had some elements of a stressed fermentation and was harsher than the control. Personally, I was amazed. I did not expect there to be a difference, let alone one this stark.

What happened? We can’t be 100% sure, but our hypothesis is that either temperature, pressure, radiation, or a combination of all three affected the yeast, probably causing enough to die off to create a stressed fermentation. The microbiologists in the club think pressure and gamma radiation are the most likely, but we’ll have to conduct more experiments to be sure. I guess we’ll have to send more yeast into space! Cheers!

Issue: September 2021