The Science Behind the Widget

Or, A Mathematician Walks Into a Bar…

Next time you’re pouring yourself a can of Guinness, after the dark and thick stout settles in your glass, listen for the widget bouncing around the bottom of the can.  You might briefly wonder, what’s the point of that little plastic piece?  If you’re like me, you’ve simply assumed the widget keeps the beer mixed, and have left it at that.

Others take the widget’s effectiveness more seriously.  MIT’s Technology Review recently discussed the widget’s importance in the context of mathematics research underway at the University of Limerick in Ireland – where else?

The quick and dirty on the widget: Most beers only require carbon dioxide carbonation to form their head. Thicker stouts, like Guinness, are carbonated with mix of carbon dioxide and nitrogen “because nitrogen forms smaller bubbles giving the drink a smoother, creamier mouth feel.”   The widget – a hollow plastic ball filled with the necessary gas mixture – accomplishes this task; when the can is opened the gas mixture is released and makes Guinness poured from cans just like the tap, smooth and heady.

The widget is clearly an ingenious application of science to benefit beer drinkers.  But Irish mathematicians studying the theory of bubble formation used “a mathematical model of a small nitrogen/carbon dioxide bubble trapped in a cellulose fiber” to work out ” how quickly it would grow.”  Their conclusion: “to replace the beloved widget with a credit-card sized sheet of paper.”

But my Guinness doesn’t need a better widget, you might bemoan.  On this point, I agree; but never have math and science been so relevant to us beer swilling dregs and simpletons.

Published in: on March 15, 2011 at 9:40 am  Comments (1)  
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The Old Stein Returns

I have a beer stein that resides deep in the recesses of my liquor cabinet, hidden far behind more commonly used scotch low balls and a favorite open mouth Chimay beer glass.  A simple half liter stein, it has no logos adorning its sides, no corporate affiliation.

The stein is a special item, a gift from a friend who has since moved away, and sits amongst other prized glassware received as gifts or kept as souvenirs.  It was originally used to hold a local brew pub’s seasonal Oktoberfest a few years ago.  After a number of these fresh and autumnal amber brews, I asked my friend – the cocktail waitress providing the drinks – if a glass could be purchased.  “Just take it,” she replied, “but not that one – I’ll get you a clean one.”

Although rarely used, the stein is a pleasant reminder of delicious beer enjoyed on a night out with my lovely wife.  Yet its large capacity was required after recently purchasing a large bottle of Guinness Foreign Extra Stout to enjoy at home.  The bottle’s contents fit nicely into the heavy stein, the beer’s dark body and foamy white head peering out through the glass’s thick body.  The stout was slightly less bitter than the brand’s traditional brew, which did indeed surprise.  The stein was steadily emptied and upon completion, I immediately regretted buying only one.

All the better, however; another Foreign Extra Stout requires using the stein again.  Unfortunately those Belgian brews so prevalently available in 750 milliliter bottles would be too much for the little half liter stein to handle.  A reason, perhaps, to dig out my larger one liter stein – another special glass with a story of its own.

Published in: on January 11, 2011 at 9:40 pm  Comments (2)  
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Black Velvet

December has arrived in Washington and with it, falling temperatures and the Christmas season.  Although decorations appear earlier and earlier each year, Black Friday truly signals the holiday’s arrival.  Following the Thanksgiving weekend, several publications spent the week discussing a multitude of non-traditional holiday beverages.  And by non-traditional, I mean everything but eggnog.

The New York Times in particular produced an impressive interactive feature entitled “For Every Holiday Party, the Right Drink.”  While many of the feature’s dozen seasonal beverage recipes required extremely specialized and obscure ingredients – green Chartreuse, allspice liqueur, Cynar, and dried horehound, to name a few – one required only two, easy to find components: Guinness and champagne.  Combined in equal proportions they make a Black Velvet, a winter drink perfectly suited for both holiday parties and cold, snowy afternoons at home.

Considered by some drink experts to be “the most elegant and delicious of beer drinks,” the Black Velvet combines two flavors – bitter and sweet – that complement one another.  As if by some Christmas miracle, the heavy, bitter beer envelops the light, sweet champagne to produce a drink both sweet and savory.  When poured, the drink’s pillowy head sits carefully atop the dark black stout, whose color clearly inspired the drink’s name.

Black Velvet’s simplicity allows and encourages variety; any stout can be paired with any champagne, according to taste, loyalty, or simple convenience.  The same goes for choice of glass: I prefer a champagne coupe, the wide, shallow, and less feminine alternative to the traditional flute.  The coupe is a touch more masculine yet no less appropriate or festive.

Before winter sets in and brings those snowy weekend afternoons, try the gift of Guinness at your next holiday party.  You will have, after borrowing some of that ubiquitous champagne, a simply delicious drink while conveying individuality, festivity, and sophistication.

Published in: on December 15, 2010 at 10:36 pm  Comments (8)  
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