Budweiser, barley and Mars: Taking beer research to the International Space Station

By Rachel Arthur

- Last updated on GMT

'Bud on Mars': Anheuser-Busch will have to think of everything from barley varieties to drinkers' taste perceptions. Pic:getty/3quarks
'Bud on Mars': Anheuser-Busch will have to think of everything from barley varieties to drinkers' taste perceptions. Pic:getty/3quarks

Related tags Beer

Budweiser is due to send samples of barley into space next week as part of a research project on the International Space Station. It is part of its ambitions to be the first beer on Mars – but Budweiser says the research could also provide wider insights for agriculture back on Earth.

Earlier this year, Budweiser announced its goal to be the first beer on Mars, and as part of the journey to reach this goal, Anheuser-Busch is investigating how its ingredients react in microgravity environments.   

Barley strains will be on board an upcoming cargo supply mission, which is scheduled to launch on Monday (Dec 4) from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. It is one of eight scientific projects on board the cargo resupply mission, with research areas including plant biology, bone growth, and diabetes management.

Barley on Mars and Earth

Once on the International Space Station, Budweiser’s barley will stay in orbit for around one month, before returning to earth for analysis.

As well as being a key ingredient for Budweiser, barley is also the fourth largest cereal grain grown in the world, across a number of diverse environments.

The project will explore the effects of spaceflight on the germination of strains of barley (Hordeum vulgare​), including proprietary strains that are under development.

The project sees Budweiser working in partnership with CASIS, the Center for Advancement of Science in Space, which manages the ISS US national laboratory, and Space Tango, which operates commercial research facilities within the national lab.

“Observing changes in gene expression and germination after exposure to microgravity contributes to knowledge about how different cultivars (plants of the same species that possess genetic differences) that are better prepared to handle Earth-based stress, such as temperature extremes or water scarcity,”​ according to CASIS. 

“Studying barley in microgravity may reveal new information regarding the germination process and identify key genes that enable some cultivars to survive in stressful environments.”

Coca-Cola and Pepsi in space

Coca-Cola and Pepsi have both made journeys into space. The companies both developed special containers for space, which were flown on the STS 51-F mission in 1985. ‘Results were mixed... the mid-1980s cola wars continued on earth but not in space’,​ according to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, which now holds the cans on display.

In 1996 a special fountain dispenser for Coke, diet Coke and Powerade was developed and launched on the Space Shuttle Endeavour. 

The first experiment will focus on barley seed exposure to microgravity. The ideal environment for seeds is in a cool, dry place. On earth, poor storage can lead to bad beer, so the experiment will help show if storage and environment is adequate in space.

A second will test barley germination. Seeds will be fed and watered in the same way they would be on Earth. Barley would typically grow to between six and ten inches on earth: so the experiment will explore whether seedlings grow at the same pace in space.

Hops, water, taste…

Barley is, of course, just one ingredient in beer and there are a multitude of other factors the Bud on Mars project must consider.

Mars’ atmospheric pressure is around 100 times less than Earth’s, creating challenges for carbonation in any kind of beverage. Bubbles in carbonated drinks don’t rise, remaining randomly distributed through the fluid instead, ‘turning the beer into a foamy slop when removed from its packaging’​.

In addition, astronauts in microgravity atmospheres lose their sense of taste due to mild swelling of the tongue, making it more difficult to taste a beer.

Turning to another key ingredient – hops – the increased distance of Mars from the sun would make attempts to grow the ingredient challenging. Hops need plenty of direct sunlight, easy access to water and a lot of room for vertical growth. On Mars, the sun appears around half the size as it does on Earth.

Meanwhile, water is limited on Mars, and that which does exist is more salty than that on Earth. Beer consists of around 90% water, while salt would give it a much more bitter taste.

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