What if drinking a cold beer could offer more pleasure? Wouldn’t it be funny if, as you enjoyed your beer, you noticed your voice starting to get higher and higher like a cartoon chipmunk? That was the idea behind some videos that came out a while ago for helium beer.
These beers would cause your voice to rise in pitch and become squeaky, using the voice-changing properties of helium. Many people thought this would be funny, but it quickly came out that this wasn’t possible. Still, it makes for a fun thought experiment!
What is Helium Beer?
Helium beer is a beer that has been infused with helium gas. Most commercial beers are infused with either carbon dioxide or nitrogen.
Carbon dioxide is a natural byproduct of the yeast in beer. As the yeast ferments the hops or barley in beer, carbon dioxide is released into the surrounding liquid. This gives beer its characteristic foam and fizziness.
Likewise, some companies add nitrogen into their brews. The yeast doesn’t make nitrogen during fermentation, so it has to be added manually. Thanks to its chemical properties, nitrogen offers a smoother feel and doesn’t fizz as readily as carbon dioxide.
Helium likewise wouldn’t exist in beer without being added manually. However, unlike the other gases used in beer, helium is much lighter than air. That means that when the helium is released from the beer, you get the iconic high-pitched voice after a few swigs.
In 2014, both Samuel Adams and Stone Brewing Co. made viral videos showcasing beers with helium in them. In both videos, the two beer producers offered examples of beers that would turn your voice into that of a squeaky cartoon character.
However, there is a problem with these helium beer videos. Both of these funny videos were released on April’s Fools Day as jokes. In other words, both of these videos were jokes. People can’t actually make helium beers.
The Truth About Helium Beer
Although the idea of helium in beer is hilarious, the physical chemistry that would be necessary is not scientifically possible because of how helium differs from gases like carbon dioxide and nitrogen.
Helium falls into a category of elements called noble gases. Noble gases are gases that are unreactive with other elements in most circumstances. Because of this property, noble gases will refuse to mix with other materials.
This fact is also true for noble gases and water. Helium is almost 700 times less soluble in water than carbon dioxide. Nitrogen has a similar solubility to carbon dioxide in water, too. In other words, you’d never be able to dissolve enough helium into beer to get the same effect as inhaling some from a helium balloon.
What You Would Need To Brew Helium Beer
So, with the buzz officially killed for craft beer fans, let’s think for a bit: what would it take for an independent craft brewer, such as yourself, to make a helium-infused beer if it were possible? Let’s say that helium could dissolve like carbon dioxide or nitrogen into the water. What would you need to make your squeaky-voiced beer?
Well, the brew makers would first need the essentials for DIY homebrewing. Here’s a brief list of the things a starter brewer would have on hand:
- Barley, hops, or malt: Whatever your preferred base for your brew is, you’ll need something to start your beer.
- Dry yeast: Yeast helps ferment the beer, creating alcohol and releasing carbon dioxide into the brew.
- Fermentation chamber: You’ll need something airtight and sealable to make sure that your beer ferments under the right conditions.
- Brew measuring tools: Tools like thermometers, hydrometers, and the like give you the info you need to make adjustments to your brew.
- A scale: Brewing is a science, so taking accurate measurements is critical
- Sanitizer: You’ll want to sanitize all your tools before using them so nothing can ruin your beer while it brews.
- A helium tank and an infuser: You’ll want to get some helium as well as a way to bubble it into the beer when it’s ready.
Once you have all your tools ready to go, it’s time to brew!
The Brewing Process
Brewing beer comes down to just a few simple steps. Infusing a beer with helium doesn’t change these steps too much. But, here’s the order you should be taking to get delicious beer:
Step 1: Prepare Your Hops/Barley
Regardless of what grain you use to start your brew, the first step is getting it ready to go into the fermentation chamber.
First, you’ll need warm water for your grains of choice. The water you use should be as pure as possible. Impurities in the water, like minerals and organic contaminants, can cause issues with the brewing process. The best option here is to use distilled water. Filtered water is okay as long as your filter can remove most impurities.
From there, you’ll heat the distilled water and add in your grains. Once the water has been heated enough to soak and bloom the grains, you’ll make a puree out of the grains and water. Any extra flavorings you want to add in will go in at this point, too.
This mixture will act as the foundation for our beer, also called our wort.
Step 2: Add in the Yeast
Before you can use it, dry yeast has to be pitched or prepared for use. Pitching is done by blooming the yeast and creating a starter. Most yeasts for homebrewing will come with recommended temperatures and water volumes for proper pitching, so make sure you check out the instructions for your yeast.
Once everything is mixed and bloomed, the yeast will need to grow and develop into a starter. For most yeast and malt starters on the market, this process takes 24 to 48 hours. You might not see considerable fermentation during this process since the yeast cells are trying to grow and multiply before developing alcohol.
Once the yeast starter is ready, it gets added to the wort we made in the previous step. Add in the appropriate amount based on what your yeast starter can handle, and get ready to wait for your brew.
Step 3: Let Your Brew Develop
With the wort and yeast mixed, now it’s time to sit back and wait for the brewing process to begin. Seal up the mixture into your airtight fermentation chamber and make sure that all your tools and instruments are hooked up. Thermometers and hydrometers are useful at this point since we don’t want to open the fermentation chamber too much while the brewing process happens.
Every seven to ten days, you’ll want to check out the beer and measure its gravity. This concept is short for specific gravity, which is another way of checking the beer’s density. When you check the density, you’re looking to see if the number you get changes over time. Specifically, you want to see your beer’s gravity go down over time.
Once you’ve gotten three results that are about the same in a row, your beer is ready to get the fun stuff added: the helium!
Step 4: Bubble in the Helium
Theoretically, infusing helium bubbles into a beer would work along the same lines as adding in nitrogen or carbon dioxide. For these two gases used in reality, canisters of the gas are hooked up to the fermentation chamber and allowed to bubble into the beer under high pressure. This pressure forces the gas to stay dissolved in the beer. That’s why when you open a nitrogenated or carbonated beer can, there’s a pop of escaping gas molecules that are no longer under pressure.
Just for fun, let’s look at some numbers. Usually, the gas has to be infused into the beer under pressure at 7 PSI to nitrogenate a beer. Since it would take a similar amount of helium to get the high-pitched voice from the drink, and the solubility of helium is 700 times less, you’d need about 4,900 PSI to attain helium infusion.
For reference, that’s the kind of pressure you could expect from an industrial-strength pressure washer for stone and metalwork. That kind of pressure would also kill off your yeast immediately. Still, this is all for fun, so let’s talk about the last step of the process.
Step 5: Package and Enjoy
Once the beer has had helium added, it’s time to package the beer into a bottle. Siphoning the beer from the fermentation chamber is one way to remove the beer without taking any of the sediment that forms with the liquid. These solids are bitter and unpleasant to drink, so they are best left behind in the chamber.
Since we added gas into this beer, we want to try and keep it as cold as possible. Icing your beer bottles will help keep the beer cold while it transfers, helping to keep your helium in the solution.
Once all of the beer is packaged, store it away in a refrigerator. By doing this, you make sure that the gas doesn’t escape. You now have your scientifically impossible and cartoonishly funny beer (without the squeak), ready to drink!