Brewing in Space

The other evening Mrs QR and I were taking our post-prandial whisky and moaning about Lockdown and the associated tedium and lack of recreation which has become a feature of our daily lives. “Let’s get away from it all” said she, then added “Perhaps we could go to the space station”. “That might have its own drawbacks,” I mused “for a start, I doubt there’s much beer up there.” “Then we could set up the first brewery in space.”

I began to ponder this idea. Apart from the suspicion that it might not be high on NASA’s list of priorities, could it be a practical proposition? You’d have to ship quantities of malt and hops up there – perhaps Mr Musk could help with that – and you’d also need a fair amount of water, but I gather the space station is pretty efficient at recycling liquids so, once the operation was up and running, beer would be just another phase in the cycle.

The equipment might take up a bit of room. There would be a mash tun, a copper and a fermenting vessel and maybe, given the likely cosmopolitan tastes of astronauts, a lagering tank. I could foresee some objections from more abstemious scientists about such things competing for space and resources with their precious experiments, but maybe some ingenious brewing technologist could design a super-compact brewing plant with minimal footprint which cleverly combined all the above.

As for the brewing process, the initial stages shouldn’t present too many problems; it’s at the fermentation stage where things get interesting. As we all know, there are basically two types of brewing yeast: “top fermenting”, the vigorous strain used for making ale, and “bottom fermenting”, the more lethargic beast used in lager production. Without gravity to distinguish between the top and bottom of the vessel, might the yeast become disorientated, perhaps even suffer an identity crisis?

OK, let’s suppose the brewers develop a new, robust strain of yeast unbothered by such technicalities, the next issue is carbon dioxide. Fermentation produces a lot of CO2 as a by-product. Normally it just bubbles to the surface and is dispersed into the air, but that won’t do in space. Firstly the fermentation vat would have to be completely enclosed – you can’t have globules of partially-fermented wort escaping and floating around randomly, so you’d need some kind of semi-permeable membrane to allow the gas to escape while retaining the liquid. And it wouldn’t do to simply release the CO2 into the air – in the confines of the space station it might seriously alter the composition of the atmosphere with potentially disastrous results, so you’d have to pipe it to the exterior and discharge it through a one-way valve.

But therein lies another problem. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction, so releasing a stream of gas from a vent in its side could subtly drive the space station off-course. It’s probably not a major problem though. I’m sure the station’s computers could monitor the drift and instigate a compensatory thrust now and then.

In other circumstances the effect could even be used to advantage. Just imagine, on a long voyage to Mars or beyond, a spaceship’s onboard brewery could provide additional propulsion as well as keeping the crew happy. Who needs ion drive?

Have I just come up with a stroke of genius? I think I’ll write to NASA today!

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