Beer Flights

The holiday season is upon us again and, for many, that means travelling to visit friends and family. More often than not, that means air travel.

Anyone who’s brave enough to face the TSA lines during the holiday rush deserves more than just a tiny bag of pretzels and a half-cup of soda. They deserve a cold, refreshing beer. Though airlines often tout the quality of the food and wine selection (at least in first class), quality beer is often tossed in favor of low-flavor national brands.

A quick online search of major American airlines shows what’s offered in the friendly skies. The choice is limited to say the least, though things are looking slightly better for the craft beer lover than they did several years ago.

Take American Airlines, for instance. A recent flight found four mass-produced brews and just two craft brews—Samuel Adams Boston Lager and New Belgium Voodoo Ranger.

JetBlue offers a larger assortment of craft beverages. Fliers on that airline can choose from Angry Orchard Hard Cider, Brooklyn Lager, Samuel Adams Oktoberfest and Lagunitas Pale Ale.

Delta has a regional craft beer on some of its flights, too.

There’s another problem facing frequent flyers who enjoy good beer: the taste. Yes, beer tastes different when you’re more than six miles up in the sky. The reason? Pressurization and low humidity in the airplane cabin. That dry air sucks your sinuses clean and causes your taste buds to lose their sensitivity to salty and sweet flavors, at least temporarily. The loss of your ability to sense sweetness tends to make bitter flavors more pronounced.

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

One airline, albeit not an American one, has made the effort to overcome the shortcomings of drinking beer at high altitudes. Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific has created Betsy Beer, a brew specifically formulated to taste great at 35,000 feet. Betsy, served on flights between Hong Kong and the United Kingdom, is created from ingredients sourced in both countries. Tropical longan fruit lends texture enhancements while honey amps up the sweetness to fight the bitterness brought out by the dry, pressurized air of an airplane’s cabin. The addition of British Fuggle hops rounds out the flavor with a pleasing earthiness.

Other airlines have made forays into making beer better while flying. Danish brewers Mikkeller teamed with Scandinavian Air to create a beer that’s enjoyable in flight. Dutch airline KLM struck a deal with Heineken to serve draft beer in first class. For this, the brewery and airline had to work together to create a new system to send beer to the tap, since pressurized carbon dioxide is far too dangerous to use in a flight cabin.

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