The craft beer world is no stranger to bold creations. From Dogfish Head’s “Celest-jewel-ale” — the only beer infused with genuine lunar meteorite dust — to independent brewer Tom Seefurth’s Mamma Mia Pizza Beer, which is exactly what it sounds like, the industry is never short of bizarre creations, boundary-pushing experiments and shameless promotional stunts.
By far, one of the strangest stories to come out of this trend has been that of helium infused beer — and its curious journey from a prank viral video to an actual, drinkable brew that seemingly flies in the face of science, good taste and common sense.
The debate about whether or not helium beer is real seems to date back to 2014, when the Boston Beer Company’s Samuel Adams PR team posted an April Fool’s video announcing the release of HeliYum, a “radical, extreme new beer that leverages the wonderful properties of helium.”
A Legend Is Born
That same day, Stone Brewing put out their own satirical ad for “Stochasticity Project Cr(He)am Ale with Helium.” The video, which was a lot more earnest in tone than the HeliYum spot, only added to the wider speculation and confusion.
Clearly, there was something in the air — though as Snopes.com points out, both videos have a lot in common with a hoax email that began circulating in 1994, ostensibly concerning “Suiso,” a hydrogen-infused product by the fictional Asaka Beer Corporation.
The Helium Beer Hype Blows Up
Despite these dubious origins, both the Sam Adams ad and the Stone Brewing video quickly went viral. YouTube comments were filled with people eager to get their hands on this unique brew, and many craft beer websites reported getting numerous emails from curious, and ultimately disappointed, customers.
The hype died down, only to be revived again the following year. Berkshire Brewing Company produced their own ad for a Helium IPA, while internet pranksters Alex & Ralf of the Die BierProbierer podcast released a German language “review” of the Sam Adams product. A slate of articles quickly debunked these and other copycat videos as a hoax, though that did little to quench the public’s thirst for more information. Today, a YouTube search for “helium beer” delivers more than 40,000 results.
A Hoax Debunked
Alas, the excitement around a craft beer that makes your voice really high pitched was never meant to last. It wasn’t long after the Alex & Ralf video blew up that articles began circulating debunking the very idea of a helium infusion. The most prominent of these was published on CraftBeer.com, entitled The Hard Truth About Helium Beer.
The article astutely pointed out that, because helium is not soluble in water, adding it to beer would be impossible. Going straight to the source, Stone Brewing’s own Rick Blankemeier, the article also notes that, because helium turns to a gas at -220°F, “you’d end up freezing your beer.”
Proving that there’s no challenge that can’t be solved by a bunch of scientists with too much time on their hands, the team at Chemical & Engineering News’ Newscripts page took it upon themselves to demonstrate that the dream of helium beer was, in fact, within reach — but how could helium infused beer be created when it had previously seemed scientifically impossible?
In an article published in November 2015, C&EN’s writers explain their reasoning: “Beers such as Guinness famously use nitrogen in place of carbon dioxide.” Because the solubility levels of helium and nitrogen are relatively similar, a helium beer could very well be within the realm of possibility.
The article continues: “Our concept was to swap out the carbon dioxide tank with a helium tank. Instead of force carbonating, we would force … heliuminate.” Working with Stanford University’s Richard Zare, the team discovered that, although the helium did not dissolve, it effectively piggybacked on the carbon dioxide occurring in the beer naturally, making the bubbles bigger and faster rising in the process.
The experiment yielded a milk stout — not unlike a Guinness — that had a “creamy, stable, well-proportioned head, which persisted through the last sip. The mouth-feel was smooth, with very little of the bubbly texture normal carbonation brings.” Tasters did note that the brew was a little flat, though fans of Guinness and traditionally made cask ales would likely not be terribly disappointed.
One conclusion that the C&EN team could definitively state was that “the pitch of our voices and belches, sadly, was unaffected.”
So there you have it. Helium beer is indeed possible, though it’s unlikely to show up at your local bottle shop any time soon.
Would you try helium beer? Let us know in the comments section.