Drink Magazine

Air Travel and Great Beer is Taking Flight

By Marc Wisdom @JaxBeerGuy

Air Travel and Great Beer is Taking Flight

Photo credit: Cathay Pacific

The summer travel season will be upon us again soon and for many that means air travel. Anyone brave enough to face the line at TSA deserves more than just a tiny bag of pretzels and a half cup of soda. They deserve a cold, refreshing beer. But, though airlines often tout the quality of their food (in first class, of course) and wine selection, quality beer is often jettisoned in favor of low flavor national brands.

A quick online search of the major American airlines will provide a look at what is offered in the friendly skies. And, though things are looking better for the craft beer lover than it did several years ago, the choice is still sparse. Take American airlines for instance, a recent flight found four mass produced brews and just two craft brews – Sam Adams Boston Lager and New Belgium Voodoo  Ranger Lager. With the most craft beers is JetBlue. Fliers on that airline can choose from Angry Orchard Hard Cider, Brooklyn Lager, Sam Adams Oktoberfest and Lagunitas Pale Ale. Delta has taken to providing a regional craft beer on some of their flights.

There’s another problem frequent flyers who happen to enjoy good beer have to deal with; the difference in taste. Yes, beer tastes different when you are over six miles up in the sky. The reason for this is the very low humidity and pressurization in the airplane’s cabin.

The very dry air also dries out your sinuses and causes your taste buds to temporarily become less sensitive to salty and sweet flavors. The loss of your ability to sense sweetness tends to cause bitter flavors to become more pronounced.

The altitude also reduces the carbonation in beer. Less atmospheric pressure equates to less carbon dioxide bubbles. Lower carbonation, like dryer air, leads to degradation of flavor.  Beer that feels flat tends to lose a great deal of its mouthfeel and along with that its appeal. The right amount of carbonation in beer leads to its refreshing, crisp flavor. Flat beer tastes dull and lifeless.

One airline, albeit not an American airline, has tried to overcome the short-comings of beer at altitude. Cathay Pacific, a Hong Kong-based airline, has created Betsy, a beer specifically formulated to taste great even at 35,000 feet.

The brew is served on the airline’s flights between Hong Kong and the United Kingdom using ingredients from both countries. Ingredients like dragon’s eye fruit lend sweetness and textural enhancements while honey amps up the sweetness a bit more to fight the bitterness brought out by the dry pressurized air of an airliner’s cabin. The addition of British Fuggles hops rounds out the flavor with a pleasing earthiness.

Other airlines have made forays into making beer better while flying. Danish brewers Mikkeller have teamed up with Scandinavian Air to create a beer that is enjoyable in the air. And Dutch airline KLM struck deal with Heineken to serve draft beer in first class. For this the brewery and airline had to work together to create a new to send beer to the tap since pressurized CO2 is far too dangerous to use on an airplane.

So, as you head out on your travels this year, you may want to check with the airline to see if you can expect to enjoy your flight a bit more or just more of the same ol’ thing.


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