Skepticism

The “Fizzics” of Beer Bubbles

Like many science geeks, I am often fascinated by the bubbles in my alcoholic drink of choice. In various stages of inebriation, I’ve gone so far as to have hour-long discussions with friends about the behavior of beer bubbles. Since a good friend of mine studies fluid dynamics, these conversations have even led to various equations being scrawled on napkins, sometimes even with lip gloss.

Have you ever noticed that beer bubbles seem to rise up in regular “trains” parallel to the edges of your glass? Or that beer bubbles sometimes migrate downward in your glass, apparently defying the laws of physics? Have you ever wondered why a cheap Bud Light fizzes like crazy (especially when shaken by a drunken frat boy) while a more-refined Guinness produces very few bubbles?

Well, it turns out that some scientists have actually bothered to study the “fizzics” of bubbles in alcoholic drinks. This research even has relevance for geology: understanding the behavior of dissolved gases in liquids is important for knowing how gases behave in natural liquids, such as molten magma or water. I just read a great tongue-and-cheek yet scientifically precise article published by Youxue Yang and Zhengjiu Xu at the University of Michigan. Their article is titled “The ‘Fizzics’ of Bubble Growth in Beer and Champagne.” I’d like to recommend the article and share a quick summary of the research.

The basic findings of Yang and Xu (2008):
1. Because of the higher initial gas concentration in champagne, the “eruption velocity” of champagne is two orders of magnitude higher than CO2-based beer.
2. Bubble growth in Guinness is slow because N2 gas is used for bubble-making. N2 has a lower solubility than CO2, so the manufacturers trap a smaller amount of N2 (relative to CO2) for the same gas pressure. The smaller bubbles which form in Guinness can sometimes be entrained in downward flow, leading to sinking beer bubbles.

Next for scientific research of beer? Perhaps understanding the “fizzics” of beer bubbles in human stomachs. Just an idea.

Evelyn

Evelyn is a geologist, writer, traveler, and skeptic residing in Cape Town, South Africa with frequent trips back to the US for work. She has two adorable cats; enjoys hiking, rock climbing, and kayaking; and has a very large rock collection. You can follow her on twitter @GeoEvelyn. She also writes a geology blog called Georneys.

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17 Comments

  1. Has no one commented on this post yet? There’s usually at least two or three comments at least before it shows up in my feed reader. I hate being first. . . .

    Two unrelated questions/comments:

    1) I have heard that bubbles in alcoholic drinks help transport the alcohol into your bloodstream faster. Sounds dubious to me. Does anyone know the science here?

    2) It seems to me that water and alcohol have rather different properties (surface tension, density, etc.). Is there a limit to how much alcohol you can have in solution before CO2 or N won’t dissolve satisfactorily? Carbonated liquor seems like such a natural idea I can’t it doesn’t exist if it’s possible. What happens if you load a seltzer siphon with vodka and charge it with CO2?

  2. Have you ever noticed that beer bubbles seem to rise up in regular “trains” parallel to the edges of your glass?

    I think that’s supposed to be because imperfections, dirt, and or dust on the glass creates nucleation sites for the bubbles to form on. So a particular nucleation site will have a train of bubbles floating up from it.

  3. Why are there bubbles in beer?
    Did that beer they made from yeast grown in space have more or less bubbles, or any bubbles at all? Why haven’t they started a brewery and distillery in space? (I’ll have to write NASA about that.)
    If you get drunk in space which way do you fall off the barstool?

  4. @ballookey:
    Evelyn:Have you ever noticed that beer bubbles seem to rise up in regular “trains” parallel to the edges of your glass?

    I think that’s supposed to be because imperfections, dirt, and or dust on the glass creates nucleation sites for the bubbles to form on. So a particular nucleation site will have a train of bubbles floating up from it.

    Larger bubbles will move strait up, but smaller bubbles may be subject to the same weak electromagnetic force of the glass.

    Or it could just be this glass of O’Fallon Weach talking. More research is needed. ;-)

  5. I’m certainly not well versed in this subject.

    But I’ve always thought that, if glass was perfectly smooth and there were no dust, that there would be no bubbles in any drink.

    Think what a horrible w0rld that would be (if I’m correct in that assumption which is NOT likely…)

    I mean, boiling wouldn’t happen either and how would I tell my atmospheric pressure without boiling?

    Eh,

    I suppose, since I’m roughly at sea level anyway, that shouldn’t bug me as much as it would.

    Screw it, I”m getting my GF to drive my drunk ass to Taco Bell and we’re gonna test the hot sauce on whether or not they clean the tarnish off of pennies. (Mild vs. Hot vs. Fire)

    My money’s on “Fire” and my GF says I’m the best BF ever.

    NOT true, but only her opinion counts,

    rod

  6. The great Horace Davenport did a great article about champagne and raisins – and Einstein’s 1905 article about brownian movement — all explained very well.
    Wonderful stuff, great math, lots of fun!

  7. I’m so happy I read this. Once upon a time, I used to bore people by telling them that aubergines/eggplants/brinjals should really be housed with the fruit instead of the vegetables. Now, I can tell them about fizzics. Much more entertaining! :)

  8. Yay! This post made me really happy, I often start conversations in pubs about the fizz in drinks. My current favourite, since I did a cocktail course, is to talk about the ‘legs’ in spirits and how they are used to test it rather than by taste (cause the testers would all be drunk otherwise).

  9. If you drink beer at a high altitude you will et drunk faster and on less than you would at sea level. Half as much beer to get buzzed in Missoula than in Miami. Try it. A whole Geology Department veirified this while I was getting drunk with them everynight for 6 weeks during field research. I think we deserve a Nobel or Korbel or something for our discovery.

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