Helium Beer, From Prank To Tank | November 2, 2015 Issue - Vol. 93 Issue 43 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 93 Issue 43 | p. 56 | Newscripts
Issue Date: November 2, 2015

Helium Beer, From Prank To Tank

Department: Newscripts
Keywords: beer, helium, pranks, inert gas, stout, kitchen chemistry, homebrew
Can You Make Beer with Helium?
Credit: C&EN Speaking of Chemistry/ACS Reactions

Squeaky-voiced brewers have released videos over the years promoting limited-edition beers pressurized with helium instead of carbon dioxide. The videos post on or around April 1; April Fools’ Day pranks, one and all.

A quick Internet search yields several pages explaining how helium beer is impossible because of the low solubility of helium in water. Indeed, helium’s solubility, 0.0015 g/kg, is roughly three orders of magnitude less than that of carbon dioxide, 1.7 g/kg.

And then the Newscripts gang took pause: A nearby listing on the same data table notes that nitrogen’s solubility is 0.019 g/kg. That’s not as low as helium, but still much lower than carbon dioxide. Yet beers such as Guinness famously use nitrogen in place of carbon dioxide to achieve a creamy mouthfeel and a fine, stable head of foam.

So we decided to make our own helium beer. For real.

Most homebrewers brew beer in 5-gal batches and either bottle it or keg it. In the fermentation process, yeast converts sugar to alcohol and carbon dioxide. When bottling, a little extra sugar is added, which builds up pressure in the bottle and carbonates the beer. When kegging, it’s easier to hook up a tank of carbon dioxide to the sealed keg, a process called force carbonation.

Our concept was to swap out the carbon dioxide tank with a helium tank. Instead of force carbonating, we would force … heliuminate.

[+]Enlarge
Wepasnick samples our helium-infused beer.
Credit: Craig Bettenhausen/C&EN
A man wearing goggles drinks a dark beer.
 
Wepasnick samples our helium-infused beer.
Credit: Craig Bettenhausen/C&EN

We teamed up with chemist and experienced homebrewer Kevin Wepasnick, a surface scientist at Anderson Materials Evaluation.

Wepasnick chose a cream stout beer style that ferments for about two weeks. While we waited, we asked beer chemistry experts to weigh in on what helium would do to our brew.

Stanford University’s Richard Zare, who investigated the motion of Guinness’s nitrogen bubbles, said, “I do predict it will lead to higher-pitched belches.” Zare predicted that because helium is essentially insoluble in water, any bubbles that formed would float to the top without changing size or speed. However, he said, those bubbles could pick up any dissolved carbon dioxide and therefore grow and accelerate as they rise.

Charles Bamforth, the Anheuser-Busch Endowed Professor of Malting & Brewing Sciences at the University of California, Davis, pointed us to Ostwald ripening, a process in which bubbles grow larger by feeding off nearby smaller bubbles. The net effect is a coarsening of the foam. Because the gas molecules must travel through bubble walls, the process is limited by solubility.

“What this means for our beer is that the head should be rich and creamy and last a long time,” Wepasnick predicted. Ostwald ripening also occurs in solid materials and on surfaces, his area of expertise. “I am expecting the effect to be similar to nitrogen, although the diffusion of the helium out of the bubbles might limit the head lifetime compared to nitrogen.”

Brewers monitor their fermentation by measuring the density of the brew. As the yeast converts the sugars to alcohol, the density drops. When that density stabilizes, it means the beer is ready to bottle or keg. The final density is also used to calculate the alcohol by volume, or ABV. Our final ABV was 6.2%.

When fermentation of the Newscripts brew was complete, Wepasnick placed the beer under 50 psi of helium pressure for around five days in a chilled keg. He then dialed the pressure down to a more normal serving pressure, 7 to 10 psi. The Newscripts gang traveled to Wepasnick’s lab to finally taste real helium beer.

[+]Enlarge
Credit: Craig Bettenhausen/Shutterstock/C&EN
Lab Notebook.
 
Credit: Craig Bettenhausen/Shutterstock/C&EN

Our helium stout produced a creamy, stable, well-proportioned head, which persisted through the last sip. The mouthfeel was smooth, with very little of the bubbly texture normal carbonation brings.

In other words, other than the nice head, it was pretty much flat. That said, it was similar in fizzyness to Guinness poured from their nitrogen-infusing draught can, which we had on hand to compare.

In aqueous solution, carbon dioxide converts into carbonic acid, giving carbonated beverages an extra bite. Helium does no such thing, which gave the helium beer additional smoothness relative to a conventional carbonated brew. “This is a recipe I would make over and over and over again,” Wepasnick said. “But I wouldn’t waste helium; I’d use nitrogen instead.”

The pitch of our voices and belches, sadly, was unaffected.

 

 

How to brew a helium oatmeal coffee stout

Supplied by www.byo.com. Courtesy of O’Shea Brewing Company Laguna Niguel, California Modified by Kevin Wepasnick for C&EN Newscripts

Rich, creamy, full-flavored oatmeal stout enhanced by a smooth, mellow coffee flavor derived from Kiln Coffee malt, topped out with a frothy, creamy white head. This is a great beer to enjoy on a cool evening.

Ingredients
• 5.0 lbs. (2.7 kg) amber dry malt extract
• 1.0 lb. (0.45 kg) dark dry malt extract
• 0.75 lbs. (0.34 kg) crystal malt (120 °L)
• 0.25 lbs. (112 g) Kiln Coffee malt
• 6 oz. (168 g) roasted barley
• 6 oz. (168 g) black malt (black patent)
• 0.75 lbs. (0.34 kg) chocolate malt
• 1.0 lb. (0.45 kg) flaked oats
• 1/2 tsp. Irish moss
• 5.7 AAU Northern Brewer hops
(bittering hops)
• (0.80 oz./23 g of 7.1% alpha acid)
• 2.2 AAU Fuggle hops (aroma)
• (0.50 oz./14 g of 4.30% alpha acid)
• White Labs WLP004 (Irish Stout) yeast
• 0.75 cups corn sugar (for CO2 priming) or helium cylinder and keg

Step by Step
1. Steep grains in hot water at 151 °F (66 °C) for 30 minutes. Drain tea from grains into boiling kettle, rinse one or two times with hot water (170 °F/77 °C).
2. Add dried malt extract to kettle, top up with water to desired level and bring to a boil.
3. Add boiling hops and boil for 60 minutes. With 15 minutes remaining, add Irish moss. When 60 minutes has elapsed, shut-off heat, add finishing hops and start to cool.
4. Once cooled, add to fermenter, aerating well then top-off fermenter with cool water until you have 5.25 gallons (20 L) and pitch yeast.
5. After fermentation is done:
a) CO2 - add priming sugar, bottle
b) He – Keg and pressurize to 50 psi with helium, chill to 40°F(4°C) for 5 days

All-grain option:
Substitute 9 lbs. (4 kg) Maris Otter 2-row for the dried malt extract. Mash grains at 151 °F (66 °F) for 60 minutes. Collect enough wort to fill your kettle to 6.5 gallons. Decrease the boiling hop addition to 0.60 oz. For the remainder of the recipe, follow the extract instructions here.

 

 
 

Craig Bettenhausen wrote this week’s column. Please send comments and suggestions to newscripts@acs.org.

 
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Comments
Jack Kalpakian (November 7, 2015 5:48 AM)
Lithium beer awaits ... ROFL
David (December 10, 2015 3:55 PM)
You mean Argon perhaps? Lithium isn't a gas...
Knowitall (April 30, 2016 7:06 PM)
You know lithium is a metal, right?

It's not a gas...It would just explode on contact with the water in the beer...
Steven Cooke (November 10, 2015 6:06 PM)
Interesting article, and the reference to nitrogen infusion in Guinness is really the application. In ALL cases the fermentation creates CO2, which will reach equilibrium in solution based on the ambient pressure. Other gases have little effect on that, except for possibly decreasing some of the dissolved CO2. The implications throughout that the CO2 is replaced by either helium or nitrogen are very misleading. It's not really the sort of piece that would seem to add to the public value of chemistry, whereas it could have been used as a very engaging platform for the description of gas law and Henry's Law applications.
Craig B (October 27, 2016 11:10 AM)
When we talk about replacing the CO2 with Helium, what we mean is that instead of pressurizing it with external CO2, we used He. So not "replaced" in the sense of removing biologically generated CO2 and replacing it in solution with inert gas, but rather in the sense of swapping out which externally sourced gas was added. Sorry if that wasn't clear.

I think we did see the kind of degassing you refer to. We put it under helium pressure before it had time to ferment in the keg, but of course it would ferment anyway and so when we first tapped it, we would have had a mixture of CO2 and He. And that first tapping is when we got the best head and the head most like that found in Guinness.

In subsequent tappings, still under He, the head got weaker and weaker. So probably we effectively purged out the CO2 by repeated pressurization and release.
Jacob Sartain (December 15, 2015 7:03 PM)
Is it just me or did anyone else imagine someone heading this article in a helium voice?
Patrick McLeod (August 29, 2016 10:02 AM)
I've been concerned about our helium usage for years now, mainly because it exists in limited quantities on Earth('in' Earth), you cannot produce more of it, and because we use it for trivial purposes(like filling balloons to keep them aloft during the birthday party or whenever). We shouldn't encourage home brewers to waste even more of it. If nitrogen creates the same effect in beer, then let's not even bother talking about using helium anymore.
Nick R. (December 3, 2016 11:43 AM)
How about hydrogen charged beer? Hindenbeer Flambe Stout anyone?
Jay Spencer (July 29, 2017 5:12 PM)
Is there a non-toxic (or even delicious) substance that, when added to water (not beer), increases the solubility of helium in that water? (Visions of copyrights/trademarks/patents of "silly soda" and "very-silly soda" are dancing in my head like sugar plums.)

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