“It’s the end of the world as we know it” seems less and less like an insanely catchy R.E.M. lyric. Whether you’re a doomsday prepper or you plan on going out with a bang (possibly the bang), we thought you should know: in the event of nuclear holocaust, you can drink the beer.
This assumes, of course, you’re one of the survivors of a nuclear holocaust and you happen to be within range of a convenience or liquor store stocking beer in cans (with no nuclear radiation monsters in between). Why do we know this? Because, among our government’s many perfectly assigned priorities, we did some testing back in the ‘50s, specifically to see whether canned products like soda and beer would be affected by the radiation of a nuclear explosion.
Part of something adorably called “Operation Teapot,” because the government is weird like that, was “The Effect of Nuclear Explosions on Commercially Packaged Beverages.” The study itself was published in 1957, but the essential explosions—the ones that tell us we’re safe drinking irradiated PBR—happened in 1956.
Don't Miss A DropGet the latest in beer, wine, and cocktail culture sent straight to your inbox.
It involved two explosions, one the strength of 20 kilotons of TNT and the other 30 (“Shot I” and “Shot II,” respectively, and quite poetically). To put that in perspective, a 1 kiloton nuclear explosion explodes with the same energy as 1,000 tons—or 2,000,000 pounds of TNT; and the smaller explosion here was 20 times that. Scientists put a bunch of bottles and cans of beer and soda at various distances from the explosion, some buried underground, some left helpless above ground. The closest group of bottles and cans was ¼ mile away.
Here’s the big bomb big surprise: the cans, and a bunch of the bottles, closest to the blast site remained intact. Yes, somehow you can find a way to drop and smash a six-pack of beer on a totally non-nuclear day, but when an actual nuclear bomb goes off, your Miller High Life will stand strong. According to the report, which you can actually read here, “on Shot II, no appreciable activity was found in exposures at 4700ft, although the beverages at 1270ft from GZ showed low levels.” Which is to say, things got a tad radioactive, but still “well within the permissible limits of emergency use.” Meaning you can drink it, but it may irradiate you and turn you into a hairless nuclear monster. Or, quite possibly, a Teenage Mutant Ninja Human.
One of the key reasons the contents didn’t acquire a ton of radiation, whether in bottle or can (and just clap your hands): the container absorbed a lot of it for them. A key finding of the study: among the beers and sodas affected, the container had higher levels than the contents. Alas, soda did win out in terms of radiation levels, with “beer by reason of its higher natural salt content exhibiting a somewhat higher activity than soft drinks.”
That’s all well and good, but radiation levels can be measured by a Geiger Counter. How can you measure the crisp, refreshing satisfaction of a cold—or extremely hot—Schlitz? By subjecting human beings. Yeah. The government was all up on studying the impact of nuclear war back in the day—and we thank them—so maybe we shouldn’t be surprised by the fact that they actually had someone taste them? But we are. In fact, they actually had some poor sap at the site do an “immediate” taste test. Like, hey, Stan, come over here and try this beer. Why? No reason…Before your hair falls out, tell me if you liked the balance of malt and hops…
The irradiated beers were sent off to laboratories for even more taste testing. But don’t worry; it was “carefully controlled taste-testing.” (We’re guessing by newbie lab assistants who immediately after lost their teeth.) The final conclusion of those poor, toothless bastards: the beers showed a range of tastiness, from “commercial quality”—as in “My, my, this beer tastes pre-nuclear!”—to “aged” to “definitely off,” aka “Nuclear skunked.” (Bonus points: there’s also a chance that “beer could contain non-ethanol elements that reduce the chromosome damage of lymphocytes [blood cells] induced by high-LET radiation.” Basically beer could be a little radiation shield?)
The report event went so far as to say that if a bunch of beer, like a grocery store worth, was found post-nuke, “ultimate usage of the beverages beyond the emergency utility would likely be subject to the review of the taste before return to commercial distribution.” Basically, the U.S. Government was not gonna let any Cold War survivors drink un-tasty beer. Which, yes, super optimistically assumes there’ll be working laboratories intact to taste our beer and also the entirely unlikely grand opening of a “Joe’s Discount Nuclear Apocalypse Mart.”
Then again, we’ll need the beer, since by then we’ll be using Trump pins as currency and having Step Up style post-war dance-offs to determine who becomes our Nuclear Emperor.