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Process Chemistry


Helium Beer, From Prank To Tank

by Craig Bettenhausen
November 2, 2015 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 93, Issue 43


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.

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

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.

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 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.

• 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



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