On April 12, 1961, the Soviet Air Force successfully launched their first manned mission into space. At the height of the US-Soviet Space Race, Yuri Gagarin became the very first human being to be shot into space, and brought back to Earth in once piece. Fifty-some years later, April 12 is the recurring date for a worldwide series of parties called Yuri’s Night. It’s not exactly a commemoration of Yuri Gagarin’s achievements, but instead a celebration of humanity’s stellar endeavors and aspirations, looking forever to the stars. And for the first time since it’s inception, Yuri’s Night is celebrated at the National Air & Space Museum.
The museum partnered with Eugene, Oregon-based Ninkasi Brewing, unveiling a new brew, straight from space. Jamie Floyd, master brewer and aspiring astronaut, somehow convinced the privately-owned spaceflight corporation, UP Aerospace Inc. to put a few vials of brewer’s yeast aboard a rocket, shoot it into space, then bring it back safely to Earth (not unlike Yuri, of course), then make beer with it. 2016’s Ground Control is the spectacular new bourbon barrel-aged imperial stout from Ninkasi, weighing in at a hefty 10% ABV. It’s dark, it’s heavy, and tastes not unlike drinking a coffee-cupcake smoothie. When asked why he would want to bring yeast into space, then down again to make beer, he simply replied, “Because I could.”
After a beer and a brief conversation, Jamie explains that he comes from a military family, and had actually set himself up to be a US Navy pilot, then work his way into the NASA program, and eventually become an astronaut. Unfortunately, his parents were adamant about their son not going to war, so he took up brewing instead. His first home brew operation was carried out when he was just seventeen. He’s been brewing ever since.
Sampling the new beers from Ninkasi (the Dawn of the Red red IPA is my favorite) in the shadows of massive rockets, I couldn’t help but recall that these were once instruments of war, pointed directly at the Soviet Union. Thinking of the resoundingly anti-Soviet sentiments expressed by Americans during the days of the Space Race and the Cold War, they’re hauntingly similar to the anti-Russian views being expressed today. When I brought this up with the executive director of Yuri’s Night, Tim Bailey, he explains that the mission of Yuri’s Night is not to promote or defend a nationalist agenda; it is instead meant to celebrate the yearning we all have to reach the stars.
Bailey goes on to say that his passion for space, and space travel, is spurred by how space allows people to contextualize problems. Military conflicts on Earth, for instance, seem pretty insignificant from space. It helps to understand how small we truly are in the scope of the universe, but also how precious that makes us all. These are heady topics to enjoy over beers.
The night also featured a virtual tour of the lunar surface with Buzz Aldrin, a masterclass in paper airplane construction (mine wound up under a rocket), and food pairings from Tortoise & Hare. Perhaps the best pairing of all, though, was Yuri’s Night finally being celebrated in the Smithsonian’s National Air & Space Museum.