Chinese Airliner Uses “Science” to Make Beer Special for Flight

Austin Ray

THE GIST
A Chinese airliner has partnered with a Hong Kong brewery to develop a beer meant for consumption at 35,000 feet in the air. Ostensibly, the beer is meant to travel well and keep its intended taste at high altitudes, contrasting a widely held belief, backed by research, that certain foods and drinks taste worse in the air than they do on the ground.

Cathay Pacific, which is releasing the beer in partnership with Hong Kong Beer Co., did not provide specific details as to what makes this beer particularly special, saying only it created it “using a combination of science and traditional brewing methods.” Science!

THE GIST
Cliché though it may be, airline food—and booze—typically sucks. In a story today about what airlines are doing to improve the state of mid-air fare, The New York Times made an effort to explain why:

“At 30,000 feet, cabin air is drier than the air in most deserts. That impairs our sense of smell, from which most of our taste is derived. So when passengers savor a beer in the air, it’s because the environment affects ‘the way the brain interprets the signals,’ Mr. [Peter] Barham, [an expert on the science of taste at the University of Bristol] said, ‘so that changes the flavor of your beer.’”

Taken at face value, that’s why Cathay saw a need to bring Betsy, a fruity ale named for its first aircraft, to market. “We know that when you fly, your sense of taste changes,” says Julian Lyden, the airline’s marketing manager, by way of press statement. “That seemed like a great opportunity for us to help our beer-loving passengers travel well.”

Now, again, the company didn’t elaborate on what makes this beer unique for flight. And despite popular belief, we’re not scientists, either. That being said, producing something like this would probably be a slick move for breweries on the ground, whether they do it in collaboration with airlines or independently, and that’s because domestic airlines have made a concerted effort the last few years to diversify their in-flight beer offerings.

“The move towards airlines offering craft ales on board makes business sense,” according to Apex Aero, a network of airliners, suppliers, and related companies. “It turns out the people drinking craft are the same ones flying regularly—those with full time jobs, university education and earning higher incomes. Offering unique microbrewery beers can attract high-paying passengers and works to differentiate an airline’s brand.”

Indeed, the Cathay news isn’t even that unique. Mikkeller, per the Times, “has crafted 10 beers for the Norwegian airline SAS” and “is expected to roll out six new ones this year from his brewery outside Ghent in Belgium. The airline has gone through about two million of his bottled and canned beers.” 

Stateside meanwhile, this past October, Harpoon partnered with JetBlue to create an “exclusive in-flight beer.” Hell, breweries afraid of heights don’t even need to leave the ground to get in on this. In 2014, Los Angeles’ Golden Road debuted Carry On Ale, in partnership with an airport food service company, to be available exclusively at airports. (And original plans called to have the beer available at more than 30 by the end of its first year.)

All of which is to say: there’s plenty of opportunity to tap into that big keg in the sky. And if you can’t wrap your head around the “science” of taste relative to altitude, here’s a tip: the best airline liquor is, always and forever, that which puts you to sleep most efficiently.

—Dave Eisenberg

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Airlines Aim to Trick Your Taste Buds at 30,000 Feet [The New York Times]