Can You Make Alcohol in Space?

By Brian Lemay 100 comments


The people who work on the International Space
Station probably have one of the coolest jobs out there. I mean, the view from their office window
is the entire planet. Some of them even get to do spacewalks. But working on Earth does have at least one
perk that astronauts don’t: After a long day, most people can come home
to a nice cold brew. But for decades, NASA has had a strict no-alcohol
policy for all its astronauts. That hasn’t stopped us from doing research
on how to make the stuff in space, though. Orbit — with its constant temperature, weightlessness,
and higher radiation — is a very different environment from anything you’d find on
Earth. And all those factors affect the alcohol-making
process. The alcohol in your beer, wine, and spirits
comes from a tiny fungus called Saccharomyces cerevisiae. Which you might also know as yeast. Through fermentation, yeast ingests plant
sugars, converts them to energy, and releases carbon dioxide and ethanol — aka the kind
of alcohol you can drink. What the yeast eats determines what kind of
drink you end up with. If you ferment grains, you produce beer; if
you ferment grapes, you get wine. Back in the Space Shuttle era, NASA sent up
an experiment designed to brew a tiny batch of space beer. Instead of using the kettles and vats normally
used for beer production, this space brew was fermented in a syringe-like device with
a very descriptive name, called a Fluid Processing Apparatus. Meanwhile, researchers made beer on Earth
using the exact same process. Once the mission ended, they compared the
beers and found that the beer brewed in space contained fewer living yeast cells. Now that was unexpected because the space
yeast actually had better access to food. Since nothing settles to the bottom in microgravity,
the yeast and the grain should’ve been more evenly mixed. But the cells that were still alive also produced
higher levels of a protein linked to stress so spaceflight might be as rough on the tiny
organisms as it is on us. Which could help explain why so few cells
survived the trip. The Shuttle’s short trips made sense for
brewing beer, but aging whiskey takes much longer. So in 2011, another group of researchers sent
a small batch of fresh scotch whiskey to the International Space Station on a two and a
half year trip. Like with the beer experiment, they kept a
sample here on Earth as well. Usually, whiskey is stored in oak barrels
during the ageing process and gets its flavors from the wood. But a barrel would be too big to send up and
store on the ISS, so both batches were sealed into small vials with some oak shavings. Once the space scotch got back to Earth, both
samples were compared chemically and by trained taste testers. Normally, whiskey gets some of its flavor
from the chemicals in wood leaching out, so researchers expected the more efficient mixing
of oak and alcohol in orbit to create more intense woody flavors. Instead, microgravity seemed to slow the breakdown
process, and they ended up with a whiskey that was very different from the control sample. The samples that were aged on Earth had a
woody aroma, with hints of things like cedar, and vanilla, and burnt oranges. On the other hand, space scotch’s intense
aroma was described as having, quote, “hints of antiseptic smoke, rubber and smoked fish,
along with a curious, perfumed note, like violet or cassis, and powerful woody tones,
leading to a meaty aroma.” Which … does not sound super appetizing. So maybe Earth orbit isn’t the best place
to make alcohol until we figure out a better way to do it. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow
Space, and thanks especially to our patrons on Patreon who help make this show possible. If you want to help us keep making episodes
like this, you can go to patreon.com/scishow to learn more. And don’t forget to go to youtube.com/scishowspace
and subscribe!

100 Comments

Darthmufin

Dec 12, 2016, 1:42 am Reply

I wonder if the process could be more similar to earth if they had the alcohol brewing in a device that constantly spun it around, similar to the things labs use to mix chemicals and keep them mixed. it would create centrifugal force that would in theory give it the downward motion that gravity would have, yes?

Robed Figure

Dec 12, 2016, 1:47 am Reply

i love that gibberish nonsense sommeliers say… that isnt very cientific at all

Hariz Izzudin

Dec 12, 2016, 1:52 am Reply

imagine when we succeed in colonizing planets and Earth's alcohol would be sold at high price due to its perfection

Herman Von Petri

Dec 12, 2016, 1:54 am Reply

I'm very skeptical of any tests of something as subjective as taste without multiple double-blind safeguards. The quote from Dr. Lumsden of the distillery implies that he knew which sample he was tasting:

"When I nosed and tasted the space samples, it became clear that much more of Ardbeg's smoky, phenolic character shone through – to reveal a different set of smoky flavours which I have not encountered here on earth before."

I didn't see anything regarding the taste test procedure so I can't tell, but the comparison is meaningless if he knew beforehand.

Brooks Silber

Dec 12, 2016, 1:57 am Reply

If they made ethanol in space does that mean it was the first rocket capable fuel ever made in space?

Ashley W

Dec 12, 2016, 2:05 am Reply

Is it whisky or whiskey? I'm confused….

Keith Richards

Dec 12, 2016, 2:16 am Reply

If they can do experiments with booze, why can't they do the same with marijuana?

I'd like to see some of that geosynchronous chronic

Alexandre Liao

Dec 12, 2016, 2:23 am Reply

Aww, there goes my space brewery business idea…

The Rebel

Dec 12, 2016, 2:35 am Reply

what about space moonshine?

New Message

Dec 12, 2016, 2:43 am Reply

I'd heard that NASA was full of 'Heavy Thinkers'. Maybe I misheard the last bit.

Randomaited

Dec 12, 2016, 2:43 am Reply

Couldn't we just brew the alcohol in a miniature centrifuge?

johnny chang

Dec 12, 2016, 2:57 am Reply

Does it have to do with the fact that space background radiation has sterilizing effects?

ozdergecko

Dec 12, 2016, 3:01 am Reply

cheers

RΞDSTΛΤΞ ΜΙLΙΤΙΛ

Dec 12, 2016, 3:07 am Reply

Get some alcohol in me and I become simply ravishing…

Ghost of Henry

Dec 12, 2016, 3:09 am Reply

So THAT's why the Federation uses synthehol

Eye of the Tiger [][][]

Dec 12, 2016, 3:36 am Reply

Hank had to be drunk as fuck to wear that ugly-ass shirt.

Carlton Banks

Dec 12, 2016, 4:04 am Reply

Why would you ship hops to space just to make beer when you could ship beer?

IceMetalPunk

Dec 12, 2016, 4:10 am Reply

That last description of space whisky seemed to me to contain lots of flavors I'd expect from a space ship (rubber, etc.)…perhaps it picked those up on the trips up and down?

Sheldon Robertson

Dec 12, 2016, 4:15 am Reply

but mars, tho. Tequila on mars!

Stevie-Ray

Dec 12, 2016, 4:15 am Reply

Could cosmic rays have had a part to play in slowing down the process and altering the flavour?

Target -Drone

Dec 12, 2016, 4:33 am Reply

And remember boys and girls, Mars is 0.4 Earth Gravity so the local brew will be space swill and it will be prohibitively expensive to ship up quality Earthling hooch.

Truly a sad state of affairs when imported bottom shelf swill is way over priced and the best thing available on the entire planet.
I think I'll say on Earth for the time being.

This is just another reason to terraform Venus.

From Scratch Aunty Bindy

Dec 12, 2016, 4:38 am Reply

Is the Astronauts sense of taste changed tho? Maybe that'd help!

XorUnison

Dec 12, 2016, 4:57 am Reply

It's 2016, we have people in space and SciShow is talking about… drinking and making alcohol in space?
I mean, come on people… if you really have to talk about drugs and drinking, why not talk about the general drug prohibition and how it's devastating our society?
I'm kinda disappointed by this one-sided commentary that goes all "alcohol and drinking is good, no word about the others".

cain

Dec 12, 2016, 5:16 am Reply

mmmm gotta get me some of that MEATY SPACE WHISKEY.

Bryce McCormick

Dec 12, 2016, 5:21 am Reply

Makes me wonder what the point of those experiments were

John Luu

Dec 12, 2016, 5:25 am Reply

I thought the Russians cosmonauts brought up vodka?

peanutaxis

Dec 12, 2016, 5:39 am Reply

Sending whisky to age in space? No wonder they're losing funding. They're running out fucking things to do.

And no-one believes that anything other than the placebo effect was present in those tasting notes.

Farm the Corn

Dec 12, 2016, 5:47 am Reply

baking in space??????

Ken Anderson

Dec 12, 2016, 5:51 am Reply

this is one of those videos that only gets watched at 3am

Carlos Perez

Dec 12, 2016, 5:56 am Reply

dude they mever made it to space…

Zach Crawford

Dec 12, 2016, 6:22 am Reply

So if brewing alcohol under less gravity makes it worse, would brewing it in a centrifuge make it awesome?

Phil Heaton

Dec 12, 2016, 6:24 am Reply

I would think that vacuum stills would work well in outer space.

SomeGuyNamedKeith

Dec 12, 2016, 6:58 am Reply

Oh…so that's why they serve Synthehol on starships! Lol

dupersuper1938

Dec 12, 2016, 7:05 am Reply

We already know the alcohol ban in space won't last…http://vignette2.wikia.nocookie.net/memoryalpha/images/7/7c/Kirk_McCoy_drink_2266.jpg/revision/latest?cb=20090514111146&path-prefix=enhttp://www.drunkard.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/scotty-booze.jpghttp://img.trekmovie.com/images/lists/drunk_explorers.jpghttp://3.bp.blogspot.com/_4IsrUoO6T68/TNnazrFpPwI/AAAAAAAABDk/pWUQt-5VTOI/s1600/tff_cast_toast.jpg

Jack DuVal

Dec 12, 2016, 7:17 am Reply

how does darth vader like his coffee? . . . . . a little on the dark side

Royal

Dec 12, 2016, 7:55 am Reply

Love the shirt d00d! x

Ivan Matz

Dec 12, 2016, 8:08 am Reply

Can you make a video explaining how do they have oxygen on the ISS? Thanks!

Juber777

Dec 12, 2016, 8:16 am Reply

They should've of made mead, hard to screw that up. Honey never spoilers also (a fact that I love)

NaughtyPatty

Dec 12, 2016, 8:34 am Reply

i would't be surprised if trying to brew beer in the russian section of ISS would produce vodka invariably

Feynstein 100

Dec 12, 2016, 8:41 am Reply

Heh. Wine tasters. Adam's ruined them, Hank.

BurpAtTheMoonAtNoon

Dec 12, 2016, 9:07 am Reply

It is simple, we convert every building on Earth into a beer/whiskey factory, then just leave for Mars.

sienarot

Dec 12, 2016, 9:22 am Reply

Truth is astronauts were drinking the samples and topping it up with water like they were stealing from their parents' liquor cabinet.

Chrispy Bacon

Dec 12, 2016, 10:41 am Reply

I can just imagine the excitement on their faces before they tasted the space whiskey, and the utter disappointment after.

Nate L.V. Brown

Dec 12, 2016, 10:49 am Reply

Repeat the first experiment, but wait for the Yeast to repopulate before starting. When the two populations are about even (this could be done over several samples each) set up the "syringes", wait, test (possibly even while still in space for half the samples). Should be interesting! 😏

Dr Gutowski

Dec 12, 2016, 11:45 am Reply

Ummm… Adam Ruins Everything did an episode on how BS "professional tasters" are
You can pour them the same alcohol from the same bottle into two different glasses, tell them one is expensive and one is cheap and they give vastly different reviews of each glass

JackTradesman

Dec 12, 2016, 11:48 am Reply

Wood shavings is a terrible idea, the process went too fast.
You need an ideal, equally distributed surface to mass ratio to compare the two.
When floral notes are heavy in spirits it means it's gone bad. I've had both grappa and sambuca that has turned, smelling like rosy perfume. Injesting it makes you very ill, almost like a drunk that turns to an instant hangover. Not fun, and your burps smell like you drank the scents section at the dollar store.

apinakapinastorba

Dec 12, 2016, 12:42 pm Reply

Those alcohol tasters are so totally making those things up.

Damien West

Dec 12, 2016, 2:15 pm Reply

s. cerevisiae isn't even close to the only type of yeast let alone ones are used for fermenting beverages

lucas silverbagel

Dec 12, 2016, 2:22 pm Reply

could you not use a small centrifuge to simulate gravity in space unless NASA was trying to see what no gravity did to the sample

Mikle Talalaevskiy

Dec 12, 2016, 3:29 pm Reply

Hey, I suppose it's pointless to ask here… But… Can you get blinded by an very intense IR or UV light… Say 300W IR lightbulb.

Avemis1

Dec 12, 2016, 5:17 pm Reply

Taxpayer money spent on making alkohol in space. Dear scientists, please check if it's easier to roll cigarettes in microgravity.

thespacejuice

Dec 12, 2016, 6:02 pm Reply

lol "get to do spacewalks"

iamzid

Dec 12, 2016, 6:37 pm Reply

i don't see why we couldn't breed yeast that works better in space. i mean we breed yeast for all sorts of other things so why not.

RageQueen

Dec 12, 2016, 7:05 pm Reply

i mean that's cool and all but…why?

Rowan Dauphinee

Dec 12, 2016, 7:45 pm Reply

Why is there alcohol around my anus?

Adventures with Frodo

Dec 12, 2016, 9:09 pm Reply

you did not answer you question in the title.

Robert Evans

Dec 12, 2016, 10:12 pm Reply

Alcohol has so many negative consequences that it has no place in critical environments like space but I would put forward that it has no place for people on earth either. The supposed benefits pale in comparison to the dire outcomes for most people in the world.

The Thought Emporium

Dec 12, 2016, 10:14 pm Reply

This really doesn't surprise me at all. What they're neglecting in this bit of research is the microorganisms in the air. Their''s a reason you can only make bourbon in kentucky. Only in that and a few other locations are the conditions just right for very specific organisms to thrive, which work their way and their byproducts into the booze. In the near sterile environment of the space station as well as presumably massive flux of cosmic rays generating free radicals, it comes as no surprise that it tastes awful. I'd have loved to see them set up a a terrarium of sorts and set the vial in there instead. Or at the very least use a double layered vial with lead glass on the outside and biosafe glass on the inside. Should decrease cosmic ray flux and improve taste a little.

Bartosz Olszewski

Dec 12, 2016, 11:12 pm Reply

so just spin the bottle!

Dizzious

Dec 12, 2016, 11:39 pm Reply

2:20 Dude! I've made whiskey like that before, it works great! I cut a branch off an oak tree, removed the bark and cut the wood it into pencil-sized sticks, then toasted those in my oven and put them in mason jars full of cheap vodka. I called it "stick whiskey", and it wasn't bad.

Also, 3:07 – that might actually not be bad. Some of the best Islay Scotch whiskeys (Lagavulin, Laphroaig) have flavor profiles with heavy notes of Iodine, leather, anchovies, campfire smoke, and other flavors that the unenlightened might consider "bad" when found in a whiskey. Having drank a number of absolutely delicious whiskeys which contain similar flavors to Space Whiskey, I actually really want to try this stuff now.

Primalxbeast

Dec 12, 2016, 11:43 pm Reply

What I got from this…people who taste test scotch are just as full of shit when making up flavors they can detect as wine testers.

FieryWingedAngel

Dec 12, 2016, 12:54 am Reply

Well, space is making it.

SSJChar

Dec 12, 2016, 2:49 am Reply

"meaty aroma". if i had a dollar every time i heard a girl say that

herptyderpty

Dec 12, 2016, 3:17 am Reply

IMMEDIATELY WITHDRAWS APPLICATION FOR MARS TRIP.

Bannicus

Dec 12, 2016, 3:51 am Reply

It seems like the tasters went along touting the same meaningless bullshit they would have even if both samples were actually kept on Earth in a blind test.

Aphrodite

Dec 12, 2016, 4:53 am Reply

Definitely agree.
Every scifi show showing illicit boozahol involves some form of gravity 🙂

Jayyy Zeee

Dec 12, 2016, 7:44 am Reply

Such an awesome shirt, Hank! I wish I knew where I could find one like it (hint, hint).

Jayyy Zeee

Dec 12, 2016, 7:50 am Reply

What do you expect? They were using terrestrial yeast. You need alien yeast that's evolved to live in zero gravity. The problem with alien alcohol is that it bursts through your chest during the hangover.

Chow Tom

Dec 12, 2016, 8:41 am Reply

What about rum? You know, pirate stuff

EozTheNew

Dec 12, 2016, 10:12 am Reply

I wonder if the process of launching and landing affects the taste in any way. Or if the smoky flavor could be linked to factors other than microgravity (eg increased exposure to ionizing radiation).

Nik Saunders

Dec 12, 2016, 10:47 am Reply

Now repeat both experiments with the space samples in various levels of artificial gravity from a centrifuge!!!

cody hedges

Dec 12, 2016, 11:01 am Reply

Next week they make a shot of heroine in space.

Simon Jöhr

Dec 12, 2016, 11:27 am Reply

these results are intresting. but i thought that chemical reaction are the same on earth as well as in space. where is the difference here? bacteria are nothing else than tiny chemical reactors floating in a liquide..

Keanu Bartolata

Dec 12, 2016, 1:38 pm Reply

NASA should consider making more… it would be nothing like Romanee-Conti's taste but, oh, price is right

TheNintendoFan37

Dec 12, 2016, 5:59 pm Reply

But what about chocolate milk?

iota-09

Dec 12, 2016, 11:38 pm Reply

but how about making cured, smoked meats in space? would that work?

Philip Wells

Dec 12, 2016, 1:06 am Reply

Further research required or I won't be signing up to colonise Mars with its lower than Earth gravity.

Veritek SuperStar

Dec 12, 2016, 8:25 am Reply

Nase does not, Roscosmos does allow it. I think some others can on certain occasion as well.

AstroFocus

Dec 12, 2016, 12:23 pm Reply

I make videos on astronomy! Have a good day!

Colleen Forrest

Dec 12, 2016, 1:55 pm Reply

Sounds like thd yeast was activated before launch in both cases. Maybe they didn`t like. the stress of the launch and a dry yeast activated. in space would fair better? Maybe if the yeast were in a certrafuge to mimic fast enough to some gravity but not so fast as to cause a stressful coreolous effect? The spin limit should testable on Earth using the taste tests described in the video.

Syvette

Dec 12, 2016, 2:36 pm Reply

Have a happy new year y'all

Gypsy Salami

Dec 12, 2016, 11:48 pm Reply

Experiment – age whiskey/beer etc. in a centrifuge at 2+ G's

Joe St.Louis

Dec 12, 2016, 5:07 am Reply

What if you created a small machine for containing whatever you're fermenting in some kind of centrifuge? To imitate gravity by centripetal force?

Merry Contrarian

Dec 12, 2016, 2:51 pm Reply

The generalization about wine = grape booze isn't accurate. Wine actually includes honey wine (mead), fermented sugar water, and kumis (because it's fermented from sugars rather than starches boiled into a mash) is more like a wine even though it's made from milk.

Jon Barrett

Dec 12, 2016, 10:55 pm Reply

Space whisky description: LOLOLOLOLOLOL

Akin Khoo

Jan 1, 2017, 4:04 am Reply

NASA, you have failed us…

Mike Lakner

Jan 1, 2017, 11:15 am Reply

Are other chemical reactions hindered? To stick to the theme ,as horrid an idea as it would be, could you make Methodist? Or more practically, bake bread or develop photographic film?

Dank Memes

Jan 1, 2017, 9:09 pm Reply

Just grow weed in space instead

Von Neely

Jan 1, 2017, 9:44 am Reply

Montgomery Scott: "Challenge accepted!"

Hard Gay

Jan 1, 2017, 11:20 am Reply

A fluid processing apparatus.
I'm officially naming my dick that.
inb4 "why do I have a fluid processing apparatus near my anus?" jokes

Throttle Kitty

Jan 1, 2017, 9:04 pm Reply

BEEER IN SPAACE

Obbie Fatbastard

Jan 1, 2017, 10:46 pm Reply

how does gravity have anything to so with ma whiskey? amazeballs

Zainer

Jan 1, 2017, 1:59 am Reply

The question is can you make space in alcohol?

Steven Mellon

Jan 1, 2017, 10:34 pm Reply

Ooh! Meaty aroma! Mmmmm!

G_P_Gon

Jan 1, 2017, 5:52 am Reply

I have a meaty aroma

Martin Conrad

Jan 1, 2017, 5:02 pm Reply

Hank, I just love watching your episodes.

diotough

Jan 1, 2017, 3:42 pm Reply

The question remains: was the microgravity responsible for the very different process or radiation damaging the yeast bacteria? Furthermore: those experiments only applied to the first step of making alcohol. How about distilled alcohol? THAT should be tricky in space due to the lack of gravity and common distillery concepts.

In general you could try and use a centrifuge or similar to simulate gravity.

Russel Strawmire

Jan 1, 2017, 7:07 pm Reply

It's good to know NASA is putting their money and resources to good use. Who cares about going to Mars when scientists make revolutionary discoveries about alcohol fermentation taking longer in microgravity?

Leonardo Pozzobon

Jan 1, 2017, 6:04 pm Reply

"…Since nothing settles, yeast should have better access to food…"
Yet, this also means CO2 molecules wander around the yeast instead of floating away. Maybe this is blocking access to nutrients for yeast cells, thus the stress and the difficulty?

Alex Taylor

Mar 3, 2017, 11:14 pm Reply

My initial thoughts were "Duh. Ethanol comes from anaerobic respiration in yeast… you don't even need air" but it turned out that there was more to it. Interesting video y'all

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