Why beer is so bad on a plane

If you travel a lot and you love beer, then you will understand the frustration: beer on planes is terrible.

While airlines put all this thought and effort into their food (celebrity chefs! Culinary ambassadors!), and have on-staff sommeliers and special wine programs to ensure they stock the best drops at altitude, beer seems a mere afterthought.

You often just get two, maybe three brews to choose from. These always seem to be tasteless lagers that show very little planning or care.

Australian carriers are particularly bad for this. Jetstar, for example, offers the choice of four beers on board, which sounds great until you realise they're all essentially the same: Corona, Pure Blonde, Great Northern and Amstel Light. Uniformly terrible lagers with no discernible flavour.

Virgin Australia has Great Northern (again), Corona (snooze), and 4 Pines Indian Summer Ale, which is at least slightly different. Qantas, in its economy cabin, offers a choice between Boags, Hahn Super Dry, Heineken and Hahn Premium Light, which is really no choice at all, given they all taste the same (though the airline is considering adding additional beers in the New Year). Tigerair, meanwhile, has – pleasingly – Furphy Ale and 150 Lashes to add to the standard Hahn Super Dry.

But beer drinkers generally get little love in the air. This just isn't a glamorous beverage. Beer is not a drink that sells business class tickets or attracts people to first. It's a take-whatever-comes type thing.

Maybe beer has been put in the too-hard basket. It does, after all, taste different at 30,000 feet, in the same way food does, in the same way wine does. Our taste buds and sense of smell are altered in a plane.

In this low-humidity environment your nasal passages dry up, which causes tastebuds to become less sensitive to salty and sweet flavours. That can make beer taste overly bitter, as you miss those complex undertones, meaning a beer with more fruit or sweetness to it (or something with sour notes, like a gose) would be ideal at high altitude. Carbonation also works differently in a pressurised cabin, meaning a beer in a plane will have a different texture to that same beer at ground level.

All of this is interesting, but it still doesn't explain most airlines' distain for lovers of the amber ale.


It's an international problem, too. Air Canada, for example, serves Molson Canadian, Coors Light, and Heineken – all really bad beers. British Airways serves Heineken (blerg), Stella Artois (blerg), Carlsberg (blerg), Holsten Pils (WTF?), and you'll occasionally find Newcastle Brown Ale and Guinness, which are at least drinkable. Plenty of other national carriers follow suit.

Fortunately, however, there are a few airlines around the world that are coming to the party – most shockingly, given the country's reputation for terrible beer and awful airlines, most of them are from the USA.

Delta, for example, has some serious craft beer cred, stocking more than 30 high-quality local brews that change with the route, but include the likes of Brooklyn Brewery (based in NYC), Sierra Nevada (Chico, CA), Ballast Point (San Diego) and Fremont (Seattle). Virgin America offers several craft brews from its base in San Francisco, including a Sneak Attack saison and the Anchor Steam American pale ale. JetBlue and Southwest also stock local craft beers.

It seems like a no-brainer, really. You give your customers a choice of interesting, tasty beer, and you support local businesses. Everyone should take note.

Elsewhere, Cathay Pacific engaged a local Hong Kong brewery last year to develop a beer specifically designed to drink in-flight: Betsy Beer, which was served to its business and first-class passengers for a few months in 2017. KLM, meanwhile, serves draught Heineken to its business class passengers – though, apparently it's not draught beer as you know it, given the system has had to be drastically modified to successfully dispense beer at 30,000 feet.

These carriers, unfortunately, are the exception to the rule. Mostly, the beer served on planes is boring and tasteless, with selections that have had far less thought put into them than the food or the wine. Here's hoping it soon changes.

Do you drink beer on planes? Which airlines have the best selections? What type of beer tastes best to you at 30,000 feet?

Email: b.groundwater@fairfaxmedia.com.au

Instagram: Instagram.com/bengroundwater

​See also: Betsy, the craft beer designed to taste great at high altitude

See also: Mile high pub - you can now get draft beer served on a plane

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