These are some of the questions I've been asked about the background
to and implications of a paper I and my colleagues Scott McKechnie and
Michael Devereux submitted to Physical Review E (now in press) and
uploaded to the arXiv preprint server.
Who did what in the paper?
I came up with the initial
idea for the project. Scott and I worked on developing the
mathematical model. Michael collected the images.
What advantages does nitrogen give to stout beers?
- Less acidic taste: carbon dioxide increases the acidity of the
beer, nitrogen does not.
- Creamy mouthfeel: the bubbles in the head are very small which in
turn is due to the low solubility of nitrogen in the beer.
- Waves of sinking bubbles at the side of the glass: small bubbles
are more easily carried along by currents in the glass.
- Long lasting head: the low solubility of nitrogen slows the
coarsening of the foam in the head.
Can you explain how the project came about?
of modelling foaming in stout beers first came up at the 70th European
Study Group with Industry. I was part of a team of mathematicians that
looked at modelling the foaming of stout beer by ultrasound. Following
the study group I remained curious about foaming in stouts and I
thought it would be an interesting project for an intern to understand
why the foaming mechanism in carbonated beers and champagnes did not
work in stouts. I was surprised to find it did work, albeit slowly,
and even more surprised when a rough estimate suggested it could
potentially be useful.
I thought bubbles formed on imperfections in the glass
surface. Is this not true?
This was the accepted explanation
for bubble formation until recently. But when researchers looked at
bubble formation sites under a microscope they found that in most
cases the bubbles were nucleated by cellulose fibres. Scratches in
glass can nucleate bubbles, but cellulose fibres are both more
numerous and more efficient nucleation sites.
How much does the current widget add to the cost of
manufacturing canned stouts?
So far as I know, the cost is
relatively small: only a few euro cents per can. But there is also the
problem of removing oxygen from the widget. Any traces of atmospheric
oxygen would affect the flavour of the beer, and removing the oxygen
is a time consuming process.
Where do the bubbles come from when draught stout is served in a
In a pub, the dispensing mechanism forces the stout at
high pressure through a plate with tiny holes in it. The turbulence
generated by during this creates the tiny bubbles that in canned
stouts are created by the widget. I don't understand this process as
well as I would like and hope to investigate it in the future.
Is there an intuitive explanation for why a mixture of nitrogen
and carbon dioxide gasses nucleate bubbles on cellulose much more
slowly than carbon dioxide?
The key to understanding this is
the very low solubility of nitrogen (1/50th that of carbon
dioxide). This means that the concentration of nitrogen in solution is
1/50 that of carbon dioxide at the same pressure. Rates of diffusion
(e.g. into a growing bubble) are proportional to concentration. So the
rate of bubble growth is much slower than expected. The presence of
some carbon dioxide in stouts speeds up the process, which is why
bubble growth is 15 times slower and not 50 times slower.
What sort of geometry for the 2.9 cm cellulose square do you
have in mind for the widget replacement? Is it something that would
line the can?
I would suggest a band round the top of the can
or the neck of a bottle (on the inside) so that the stout flowed past it
as it was poured out. I think the ideal geometry would have the fibres
perpendicular to the surface in a regular array. Our future work in
this area may focus on determining an optimal geometry for the
Where do the cellulose fibres that nucleate bubbles in
carbonated beers, sparkling wines and champagnes come from?
The cellulose fibres will either have been shed from the cloth used to
wipe the glass dry or will have fallen out of the air.
Isn't it more likely that the fibres nucleating the bubbles are
left over from the brewing or fermentation process?
to nucleate bubbles fibres must contain a gas pocket. It is likely
that any gas pockets in fibres left over from the brewing process
would have become flooded over time. Also if you look at a glass of
champagne or carbonated beer you will see that most bubbles form on
the walls of the glass with very few, if any, bubbles forming inside
the beer. This is hard to explain if the nucleation sites are inside
What are the broader implications of the work, beyond stout
One interesting discovery we made is it seems to be easier
to study bubble formation in cellulose fibres in stouts than it is in
carbonated liquids. The bubbles grow more slowly making them easier to
observe, and when they reach the surface of the liquid they do not
rupture (coating the microscope lens with microdroplets). So it may be
that this study, which owes to much to previous work on champagne and
other carbonated liquids, may be able to give something back.
- Another possible idea is developing a microwave milk frothing
device. Cappuccinos also require very small bubbles and it might be
possible to devise a vessel which nucleated tiny bubbles on its walls
as the microwaves heat the milk to its boiling point.
I'd like to see cellulose nucleating bubbles in stout for
myself, how do I do it?
First you need a can of stout. You
should be able to hear the widget rattling around in the top of the
can. The problem is that if you open the can normally, the widget will
create lots of bubbles which will scavenge all the dissolved gasses
from the stout leaving none for the cellulose. So take some bluetack
and a pushpin. Put the bluetack on the top of the can away from the
tab of the ring-pull. Push in the pin through the blue tack and
through the metal of the can (be careful and perhaps wear eye
protection). Wobble the pin from side to side until you can hear gas
escaping. Let the gas escape slowly, it should take a minute or two
for the can to reach atmospheric pressure (check this by squeezing the
sides of the can). At this point open the can as normal and pour
slowly into a glass without splashing. The beer should look like flat
coca-cola. However if you shine a powerful torch up from the under the
base of the glass you may see trains of bubbles from (invisible)
cellulose fibres rising very slowly. Pour some stout over a coffee
filter and you should see bubble formation, especially under a
Who are the other researchers involved in this area?
Gerard Liger-Belair and coworkers provided the foundations for
this work: we used their model of bubble formation as the starting
point for our work.
Chappell and coworkers also developed a model of bubble formation
in carbonated liquids.
Alexander was involved in proving that bubbles in stouts do