Winston Aldworth tastes a new beer, specially brewed with real altitude.

Wondering why that inflight coffee tastes so awful? Bemused by the blandness of your airborne wines and meals? Well, apparently, it's all your fault - or at least, it's the fault of your taste buds.

The dryness and low pressure of a plane cabin at altitude combines to reduce the sensitivity of your taste buds by up to 30 per cent. The dry cabin air also limits the sense of smell, which adds to the blandness already going on in your tastebuds.

Even the noise of the jet engines - a steady, low hum - can affect the way we taste flavours.

Because of the way our taste buds get knocked about, a bloody Mary tastes better at altitude - airlines report they are the most popular cocktail.


Thank goodness, then, for Cathay Pacific's Betsy beer, which they claim is "specially brewed to be enjoyed at 35,000ft". That's 10,600m for you fun-hating metricists. Me, I'm willing to suspend belief in the interest of giving Cathay's brew a fair swig.

The airline commissioned the Hong Kong Beer Co to develop Betsy. The brewers opted for a honey-tinged wheat beer. It's less bitter than hoppier drops and packs 10 per cent more carbonation than a standard sea-level ale.

It's a wheat beer, but in truth Betsy was as cool on the pallet as a classic golden ale. Although perhaps our tasting last week at Cathay's Parnell office was 35,000 feet too low to really get the full Betsy effect.

They've used English fuggle hops and have run in Hong Kong-sourced dragon eye fruit, a kind-of lychee that's common in Chinese cooking.

For years airlines - including Cathay Pacific - have been telling passengers that the reason food, beer, wine and hors d'oeuvres taste awful is that our taste buds are doing weird things at altitude. Too often, it's an excuse for serving bad coffee.

So it's great to see an airline doing something exciting about the way our drinking palate changes on a plane. (There's plenty of work that already goes into the food.)

Says Cathay Pacific marketing guy Julian Lyden: "We know that when you fly, your sense of taste changes. Airlines address this for food in certain ways. But nobody has ever tried to improve the taste of beer at altitude. That seemed like a great opportunity for us to help our beer-loving passengers travel well."

The brew they came up with is actually pretty bold - bearing in mind that this is a heritage carrier where all major decisions are sent up the chain to Hong Kong before anything funky can be done.


I'd expected them to serve a fairly innocuous lager of the faceless green-bottle variety.

One fault: It should be in a can, which would be lighter, thus saving on fuel across the fleet.

At the moment, the beer is only served to premium passengers on their the UK-to-Hong Kong routes, in their lounges at either end and in a few bars around Hong Kong. But it'll roll out throughout their network.