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A taste of space: west Japan team crafts beer using yeast that reached the stratosphere

Yeast in blue-lidded containers reaches the stratosphere by balloon, while backgrounded by Earth. (Photo courtesy of Tokushima University's graduate school associate professor Osamu Sahara)

TOKUSHIMA -- Yeast that took a balloon all the way up to Earth's stratosphere is being used in a special beer brew thanks to the efforts of a team including Tokushima University in this west Japan city, and a local brewery.

    The yeast exposed to subzero temperatures and strong ultraviolet rays has reportedly made the beer fruitier and spicier than those brewed with ordinary yeast. The batch from the Kamiyama Beer in the neighboring town of Kamiyama is set for release in the autumn, and people will soon be able to sample its unique delights for themselves.

    According to individuals including project leader Osamu Sahara, associate professor at Tokushima University's Graduate School of Technology, Industrial and Social Sciences, the stratospheric environment is harsh, with strong ultraviolet rays and temperatures as low as minus 70 degrees Celsius.

    Sahara came up with the idea of sending yeast to the stratosphere as part of research on whether the microorganisms' characteristics would be changed by the harsh environment. Yeast was chosen for its use in regional revitalization. The project became a reality after Sahara proposed it to Kamiyama Beer, which uses local ingredients to make beer.

    A weather balloon containing beer yeast is seen soaring upward. (Photo courtesy of Tokushima University's graduate school associate professor Osamu Sahara)

    With help from startup company Gocco Inc. based in Gifu Prefecture, the team released the yeast -- stored in special acrylic containers measuring about 2 centimeters thick and 10 cm wide -- in Mie Prefecture in summer 2020, using a weather balloon. The balloon burst at an altitude of some 30 kilometers, and two and a half hours later the samples that parachuted back to Earth were retrieved.

    Despite concerns the yeast would be completely killed in the harsh environment, most of it was found to have survived. The beer made with it yielded a different flavor and taste, which Sahara praised, saying, "The yeast's characteristics changed in a good way."

    Kamiyama Beer started a batch using the yeast that reached the stratosphere in April 2021. They plan to add the yeast in wort to ferment for two weeks, bottle and rest the brew for seven to 10 days, then age them in a refrigerator for one to two months.

    Some 180 liters is being brewed with an aim to release the beer this autumn. Brewery owners Manus Sweeney, 41, and Sayaka Abe, 41, said that they hoped people who cannot travel far due to the coronavirus pandemic will be able to enjoy getting merry while drinking the beer and thinking of space.

    "Microorganisms and humans live in close harmony," Sahara said. "I hope the beer can serve as an opportunity for people to get interested in biodiversity."

    (Japanese original by Sakura Iwamoto, Tokushima Bureau)

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