In the 1940s and ’50s, Betsy, a converted Douglas DC-3, was better known as the first aircraft of Cathay Pacific. During those two decades, she loyally ferried Cathay Pacific passengers around Asia. She now sits proudly in the Hong Kong Science Museum.
It was this aircraft, first bought in New York by Cathay Pacific’s founders Roy Farrell and Sydney de Kantzow, that the airline looked to for inspiration when creating its first bottled beer, scientifically engineered for drinking in the air.
What Cathay Pacific created was Betsy Beer – the pioneering spirit, history and the excitement of the original poured into a bottle to be served at 35,000 feet to business and first class passengers flying between Hong Kong, London and Manchester this month.
The launch celebrates the routes to the UK (where craft beer has a rich heritage), and draws on Cathay Pacific’s Life Well Travelled philosophy: to enhance the overall travel experience for passengers. Travelling well means living well – which means every trip should be memorable and rewarding.
Betsy Beer also marks the first time the airline turned to science to make the inflight beer-drinking experience as good as possible.
Beer doesn’t naturally belong in the inflight environment. Cabin pressure, altitude and the background hum of the engines mean palate sensitivity is reduced, and you register tastes and smells differently at 35,000 feet. To create a unique bottled beer brewed scientifically for the cabin environment, Cathay Pacific paired up with the Hong Kong Beer Co, the brewers behind local Hong Kong craft ales Big Wave Bay and Dragon’s Back.
To create (or recreate) the taste of Betsy in a beer, the Hong Kong Beer Co put together a panel of Hong Kong’s best tastemakers – restaurateurs, frequent fliers and industry experts – to advise on the aromas, flavours and science behind the brewing process.
The idea was to mix ingredients from both Hong Kong and the UK, to unite both the taste and the routes it would be served on.
That’s why the three key ingredients in a bottle of Betsy Beer are longan, an Asian fruit sourced locally in Hong Kong, which has a more subtle taste than lychee and lends the beer an aromatic and sweet flavour; honey, produced in a farm in Sha Tin, in Hong Kong’s New Territories; and Fuggle hops, produced in Kent, England, which – coincidentally – is near Gatwick Airport, one of the UK routes on which passengers from Hong Kong can enjoy Betsy Beer.
And what about the science of the brewing process? Ingredients taste differently at altitude – what tastes bitter on the ground might not necessarily taste bitter in the air, for example. Typically, our palates are dulled inflight and sensations are reduced. To mitigate this sensory effect in a bottle of Betsy Beer, several steps were taken. More carbon dioxide was added, increasing the carbonation of the beer to stimulate the tastebuds when drunk; and the beer remained unfiltered, in order to preserve vitamin B to restore sensory cells.
The sweetness in the ingredients was also heightened. This is where the longan and honey come in, says Devin Kimble, founder of Hong Kong Brew Co. They give ‘the perception of sweetness’, he adds. ‘Passengers get the aroma, but it doesn’t taste sweet.’
After creating the craft beer, what does the brewmaster think about Betsy Beer? ‘I like it,’ laughs Kimble. ‘I’d have a couple.’
‘We know that when you fly, your sense of taste changes,’ says Julian Lyden, general manager marketing, loyalty programmes and customer relationship management at Cathay Pacific.
‘Airlines address this for food in certain ways. So why not do the same and improve the taste of beer at altitude? That seemed like a great opportunity for us to help our beer-loving passengers travel well,’ says Lyden.
‘We are constantly looking for innovative and meaningful ways to enhance the travel experience for our customers. To help passengers experience something memorable is a big part of what we mean by “travelling well”. Betsy Beer is a great example of this. A beautifully crafted product designed purely with the traveller, and beer lover, in mind.’
‘The introduction of a bespoke craft beer, brewed in our home city and with due consideration to the aircraft environment is testament to Cathay Pacific’s pursuit of offering a Life Well Travelled experience,’ says Aaron Claxton, head of catering inflight services at Cathay Pacific, adding that customers should pair it with the burger and fries on offer on UK routes.
As well as on routes between London Heathrow, London Gatwick, Manchester and Hong Kong this month, you can also try Betsy Beer in the lounges at Hong Kong and London Heathrow airports. Even if you’re not flying, you can find Betsy in various bars and restaurants around Hong Kong, including Quarry Bay’s Mr & Mrs Fox, Plat du Jour, Public and Café Grey Deluxe at The Upper House hotel – so you can enjoy the Life Well Travelled experience on the ground as well as onboard.
Brewing a Betsy
To create a bottle of Betsy Beer some of Hong Kong’s top tastemakers advised on exactly what should go into the bottle – and how to enhance its taste at 35,000 feet.
First, a base beer was created. Then, the panel – spanning local restaurateurs including Little Bao’s May Chow; Thomas Lau, chairman of the Hong Kong Craft Beer Association; cabin crew; frequent fliers; local celebrity Real Ting; and Hong Kong Brew Co director Devin Kimble – helped to select the infusions.
The panel sampled a handful of ingredients: eight from Hong Kong, and four from the UK, including two different hops, various fruit and flavourings such as lychee, hibiscus and jasmine.
‘We didn’t want anything bitter as the plane environment accentuates bitterness,’ says Kimble. ‘It needed to heighten the aroma and sweetness. We wanted something refreshing.’
The three that worked well were longan, honey and Fuggle hops. Fuggle hops are ‘herbaceous, pretty hoppy and low in bitterness’, says Kimble. ‘It’s an old hop, first commercialised in the late 19th century, that has been resurrected for Betsy Beer.’
After a tasting panel came the inflight tasting – where it also came out soaring.