– Oconee Brewing Co. goes where no beer has gone before
– Photographed by Blake Smith –
On a chilly November morning, a small group of pioneers gathered at dawn in an open field near Lake Oconee. They were there to make history.
As the sun rose, they released a high-altitude weather balloon that carried the first can of craft beer more than 120,000 feet into the stratosphere. A piece of art was also along for the ride, becoming the first mixed media art installation – however brief – in near space.
Big ideas start small, so when Barnesville-based muralist Andrew Henry was working on signage at Oconee Brewing Co. in Greensboro and told his friends Nathan McGarity and Taylor Lamm about his dream of becoming the first muralist in space, no one laughed.
“Like any artist, I’ve got all these ideas I want to communicate through my art,” says Henry, “and here I am dreaming of going up in rocket ship and making art and Nathan says, ‘Why don’t we start with a balloon?’”
Not one to be daunted by outrageous ideas, McGarity’s balloon vision was a feasible way to take one small step for Henry and one giant leap for OBC by simultaneously becoming the first beer in space.
“The more we talked, the more fun it seemed,” says McGarity, “and then we found out that nobody’s done anything like this before and we wondered, why not?”
The three began brainstorming and McGarity found the high-altitude balloon equipment they needed online. “It was a site that supplies weather balloons for actual, legitimate research,” he says laughing. “But exploration for entertainment value is valid too.” The rest of the rig was born of sheer ingenuity.
To keep their “space craft” under the four-pound payload required by the Federal Aviation Administration, the crew built a shell from a Styrofoam cooler to house two GoPro cameras, GPS tracking equipment, heating pads to keep their batteries working, a couple of business cards in case they did not, and a bag of hops for good measure. It was all duct taped and bundled and tied to the parachute in the event of breakdown upon reentry. Outside, a can of OBC’s Round Here Beer was suspended at the end of a carbon fiber arrow shaft protruding from one side of the cooler.
Brew master Taylor Lamm had specially conditioned the can so the carbonation level would withstand the low atmospheric pressure. “We knew, with it being carbonated and enclosed, it would explode,” says Lamm, “so we gave it no head space and heat sealed it to prevent that from happening.”
The piece of art was affixed to the other side of the rig. Henry created the mixed media piece portraying a being stepping onto another planet on canvas built with a lightweight frame of Balsa wood, texturized with Bondo automotive filler, and bordered with aluminum – which incidentally served as the craft’s radar detection so passing planes could pick it up.
Despite its makeshift construction, the launch was flawless. The balloon was inflated to about 7.5 feet in diameter, which McGarity says was only about 15 percent of its capacity. “It was enormous,” he says, “and as it went up it began expanding and eventually got up to about 25 feet in diameter.”
The GoPro video cameras mounted onto the rig captured the ascent into the stratosphere, providing stunning footage that was compiled by Clayviation Drone Productions and shared throughout the world once it caught the attention of “Good Morning America” and CNN.
Henry says everyone who witnessed it, from the ground and from later video footage, were amazed.
“People seem so caught up in their everyday routine,” says Henry. “It’s transformative to see something mundane set against the backdrop of space to make us realize were just one small thing in this massive universe.”
The balloon made it through the jet stream and upper atmospheric winds to around 120,432 feet – according to their best estimations from GPS readings – before the balloon finally burst under pressure, beginning its free fall back home.
McGarity had filed his flight plan with the Federal Aviation Administration and used applications to track weather patterns and provide prediction models for where the rig might make landfall. All predictions pointed to Sparta.
That’s where they were waiting when pings from the one remaining GPS tracking device began showing data points in Wrens, about 60 miles east of Lake Oconee.
“We started heading that way and that’s when we got the call from a farmer, wondering what the heck this was,” says Henry.
McGarity recalls the farmer telling them he was on his tractor and had made a turn to go down the next row when he saw something in his field that didn’t belong.
He was mainly concerned with the organic contents of a Ziploc bag inside the cooler. “We had to assure him that this was not some kind of drug cartel drop and the pellets were just hops,” says Henry.
It was brew master Taylor Lamm’s idea to send the hops along for the ride. He says he knew of a hops variety from Australia called Galaxy Hops and thought it would be the natural choice to include in a stellar special batch once it returned from near space.
Lamm will be brewing a SMASH beer (Single Malt and Single Hop) using the Galaxy Hops that entered the stratosphere. “The ingredient line is very simplistic, but it will be a good way to showcase the hops that were part of this adventure,” says Lamm.
This specialty batch of “Stratosbeer” will be released on Feb. 10.
As for the actual space-traveling beer can? It will be on display in the tasting room at Oconee Brewing Co., now donning its own custom-made space helmet created by Henry – a reminder that a little creativity can take anything to new heights.
Oconee Brewing Co. will release its “Stratosbeer,” a specialty batch made from the Galaxy Hops that entered the stratosphere, on Feb. 10 from noon to 8 p.m. Get there early to taste the limited supply of this stellar brew!