From Stress to Adventure: Why Your Next Airport Beer Is More Than Just a Drink

I enjoy a nice glass of wine, and craft cocktails, but I don’t have a strong affinity for beer. Nonetheless I can appreciate the role that beer plays in American culture, and the way that it can evoke certain feelings.

One of those is making it through the stress of life, and of getting ready for a trip – arriving at the airport, checking in and dropping off bags and proceeding through the harried process of security – only to collapse into relaxation as you realize that you ‘made it’ and have an adventure ahead.

Capital One leans into this in their airport lounges. In each lounge they ask their local brewery partner to develop their own take on “the perfect airport beer.”

Capital One’s food and beverage director describes the concept as being that there are iconic moments, like having a beer at a ballpark or with a parent when you turn 21. There’s also a certain taste as you ‘set off for adventure’ or a journey at an airport and each lounge has a beer meant to evoke and commemorate this.

Here are the Dulles lounge’s beers on draft:

Outside of the lounge, airport beers are expensive: up to $28 in the New York area. They’ve gotten expensive inflight, too. So passengers may bring there own, such as a man carrying a full beer mug between concourses inside a Washington Dulles ‘mobile lounge. Another passenger brought a whole tub of beer on a plane with them.

Beer is much better on the ground than it is in the air, though. KLM tried to offer draft beer inflight seven years ago but never expanded the test. In fact, the project wasn’t approved by regulators but I don’t believe they were ever fined.

With less air pressure in the cabin than on the ground, it isn’t just taste buds that change. A beer tap will “only dispense a huge amount of foam” and alternative dispensers that are suitable for a pressurized cabin are too large. The trick was to take the components of a keg — beer, cooling system, and compressor — and fit it inside a galley cart. And do it without CO2 cartridges, which wouldn’t be permitted inflight.

Courtesy: KLM

Partnering with Heineken, they pressurized the cart dispenser, and used pre-cooled kegs keeping the beer under 41 degrees over the course of a transatlantic flight.

KLM had claimed to be first, but Japanese airline ANA actually put the first draft beer on a plane in 2010 using dry ice.

This was offered on routes out of Tokyo Haneda to Fukuoka, Sapporo (natch!), Osaka, Nagoya, and Okinawa as well as out of Osaka and Nagoya, Fukuoka and Okinawa. Haneda – Sapporo and Fukuoka flights only offered beer after 5pm.

ANA charged economy passengers 1000 yen for the beer, and only had 20 cups of beer available per flight on 767, 737, and Airbus A320s and 40 cups per flight on Boeing 777s. Despite launching with much fanfare it really didn’t work out well (taste any good) and the idea was dropped.

The beer on board may not be as good, but when I was a kid my tastes were hardly evolved. And one benefit of drinking inflight when traveling internationally is that the rules of an airline’s home country apply and that often means drinking ages that are less than 21. And some airlines will even let you bring your own selection with you and serve it to you inflight.

I said I wasn’t a big fan of beer but that’s not quite true. I loved the old United Red Carpet Club self-pour machine in Tokyo.

There are more beer-centric cultures than in the United States. Two decades ago a Danish court upheld the right of workers to drink beer during breaks. But a beer at a ballpark is distinctly American, and a beer as you set off on a trip to celebrate a little victory is a special moment that many here cherish.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. @Gary they still have the self-pouring machines at the United Club. The UC in Narita hasn’t really changed much from the RCC days except for the name. I think almost all the lounges in Narita have the machines (JAL, ANA, AA, and UA lounges all have them, haven’t checked the other lounges).

  2. One of the Lounges in Narita also had another Self-Pouring Beer Dispenser that was different: It had a long stainless steel tube with a 45 degree tip on the end, which was automatically inserted all the way down into an erect glass before beer started to flow. As the glass began to fill, the tube was slowly withdrawn. Like the other machine, it also created the perfect foam head, by pulling the tube slightly above the glass and feeding a bit more beer.

  3. I like that Brussels Air has the “beer bar in the sky”. – especially for the daytime TATL return to the US. Also usually try to bring back a BA Speedbird when on UA. Not interested in Heineken.

  4. All I know is that there’s nothing like boozing it up before a flight. Shoutout to Ms. Fruita—Admirals Club DCA Concourse D.

  5. I’ve never drank a lot of alcoholic beverages at airports or on airplanes, even if they were free on airplanes. One time I did indulge was at the Narita Airport when my Northwest flight to Bangkok was going to be three hours late due to late arrival of the aircraft from San Francisco. Northwest handed out vouchers but they were useless for food since all of the food places had already shut down. A place serving drinks was getting ready to shut down so I ordered four scotch on the rocks from them to pass the time and burn the voucher. Maybe it helped me get a few more winks of sleep on the flight. At least I got into Bangkok (Don Mueang was BKK at the time) before the morning traffic started.

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