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Scientists sent the ingredients to brew beer and age whisky into space. What they got back was surprising.

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Hank: 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 aging 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.

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