January 13, 2018
Researchers Grow Hops In Simulated Martian Soil, But Brewing Beer On Mars Is Still Far From Reality

At the moment, it's not even an absolute certainty that humanity will make its way to Mars in the immediate foreseeable future. But assuming space programs or even private companies could send people to the Red Planet, it might not be a bad idea to celebrate the milestone by cracking open a cold beer. In theory, that just might be possible, if the results of a recent study are any indication.

As detailed in a report from the New York Times, Villanova University professor Edward Guinan's astrobiology students undertook an ambitious project last semester, where they were asked to conduct experiments to see which crops could grow in Martian soil and serve as a source of food for the planet's potential human inhabitants. In most cases, the students took the practical route, attempting to grow soy beans, kale, and other healthy crops, or herbs such as mint and basil to ensure that Martian meals are as flavorful as those served on Earth. One group, however, went with hops, which is best known as the grain used to make beer.

"Because they're students, [they wanted to brew] Martian beer," quipped Guinan.

As no human being has actually gathered soil from Mars and brought it home to Earth, Guinan purchased 100 pounds worth of crushed basalt from a volcano in the Mojave Desert to serve as a simulated version of Martian soil. According to the New York Times, crushed basalt was previously found by scientists to be a "reasonably good reproduction" of the soil samples gathered by NASA's Phoenix Mars lander and other spacecraft.

With the ersatz Martian soil in place, Guinan's students grew the plants inside a "small patch of a greenhouse" that simulated reduced sunlight by means of a mesh screen. Almost all of the crops involved in the study had done well when the researchers added the mineral vermiculite, which is usually blended with heavy and sticky soils on Earth as a fertilizer. Cutup pieces of cardboard also worked well, as Guinan surmised that astronauts probably won't be bringing vermiculite with them to Mars, but would most likely have cardboard boxes handy. Likewise, one team that grew carrots, scallions, and spinach in the mock Martian soil saw their plants growing quickly when they used coffee grinds as a fertilizer.

The New York Times report did not state how well the hops did in comparison to other crops involved in the study. But Guinan told the publication that mesclun, a combination of various salad greens, did "fabulous" in the simulated Martian soil, even without the aid of any kind of fertilizer.

The Villanova students' attempt to grow hops as a potential source for "Martian beer" comes a few months after Budweiser manufacturer Anheuser-Busch InBev announced its plans to launch 20 barley seeds aboard a SpaceX rocket, with the goal of sending the seeds to the International Space Station and seeing how well barley grows in microgravity. While company officials stressed that the longtime beer maker will "be there" if and when humans get to colonize Mars, Time stressed that such endeavors might come with their share of challenges, such as not having enough free space aboard a space station to grow enough barley to make a mere 20 liters of beer.

In addition to a possible lack of space, Time added that anyone who plans to grow Martian beer would need to have specialized, expensive equipment for the barley grains to go through the malting process. Martian gravity could also make brewing challenging, as this could result in poorly carbonated, overly frothy beer.