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A little beer widget powers 'the surge'
July 22, 2002
Rachel Ross, Toronto Star

Ever picked up a can of beer and heard something rattling around inside?

Don't worry. It's not the severed finger of some unfortunate beer bottler.

If you're drinking stout, it's probably just a widget.

For more than a decade, beer widgets have been rattling around in cans around the world, freaking out stout drinkers and their friends.

According to Guinness, the company that patented the beer widget in 1989, it was originally developed to produce the creamy, frothy head you'd expect from an Irish pub in the comfort of your home.

But I wanted to know more. Canned lagers don't need a widget. Perhaps the Guinness invention was doubling as a tracking device!

These were questions I needed answered before I started drinking stout. So I cracked open a can, poured out the beer and set to work with a pair of scissors.

That's right - I wasted a perfectly good beer to satisfy my curiosity. But it's all in the name of research. And think of all those beers I'm saving, by sacrificing my own in order to relay my widget knowledge to others.

Inside the can, I discovered a white, plastic sphere resembling a tiny, extra firm ping-pong ball. It also had a single, tiny hole on its circumference.

To understand the need for the hole, I had to learn a bit about beer chemistry.

A can of stout has less dissolved carbon dioxide than a bottled beer. That's because while most beers are carbonated with carbon dioxide alone, Guinness uses a mixture of carbon dioxide and nitrogen to produce those characteristic, tiny bubbles. The trick is to free the dissolved carbon dioxide that is in the beer to produce a distinctive head.

When you buy a Guinness on tap, the bartender can compensate for the lack of carbon dioxide by forcing the beer at high pressure through the nozzle. But there's no nozzle on a can.

That's where the hole on the widget comes in.

Before you open a can of Guinness, the widget is full of a mixture of beer and nitrogen gas. Once opened, the pressure inside the can drops, forcing the gaseous solution out of the ball through the tiny hole. When forced through such a small opening, the beer molecules get a little bit agitated. It is that little spurt of agitated beer and gas that starts the magical chain reaction, releasing the dissolved carbon dioxide, as the swirling brown fluid separates into beer and foam. I believe this is known officially as "the surge.'

The Guinness widget works so well, the company has contracts with several draught makers to produce little widgets for their cans, too. That's why widgets inside cans of Guinness, Double Diamond and Beamish beer all look the same.

Unfortunately, I didn't find that out until I'd already emptied two more cans of beer down the drain.

So now I had three mangled beer cans and innocent looking plastic balls.

The widget's simple shape belies its complexity. It's also not terribly indicative of all the hard work that went into making it.

"During the past 25 years, considerable expenditure has been devoted to research and development," reads the 1989 widget patent by Guinness Son & Co.

No kidding.

There was a widget that predates the floating variety, which was actually stuck to the bottom of the beer can. It used the same basic principle, releasing nitrogen into the beer to free the carbon dioxide and produce a creamy head of tiny bubbles.

But according to Guinness spokesperson, Kate Blakeley, the company wasn't satisfied. They wanted a widget that would be able to move nitrogen through even more of the beer to produce more of a head.

"This project took more than 18 months and considerable investment," Blakeley said in an e-mail interview.

"The end result was a new era in widgetry that moved Guinness even closer to its goal of total synergy between Guinness Draught in cans from the fridge and Guinness Draught in pints at the pub."

That "new era" was ushered in at the end of October, 1997, when the new floating widget was installed in cans.

But that's just the tip of the ice cube, in terms of widget history.

The truth is that Guinness has been obsessed with the whole idea for a long time. The widget itself has gone through many incarnations but what's far more amusing are the ideas that came before the widget.

A quick scan of the U.K. patent database reveals that Guinness has patented hundreds of advances in beer technology, many dealing with what I like to call the frothy-head-at-home problem.

The funniest patent I came across was a certain file from 1981 that covers an assortment of bubble-inducing systems.

The pictures pretty much say it all.

There's a really nifty line diagram of a hand injecting something into a glass of beer with a syringe. Yes - a syringe. According to the patent, Guinness thought it might be a good way to give the beer a frothy head. But imagine you're in the beer store, you've just purchased six cans of Guinness when the guy behind the counter hands you a syringe.

Then there's Guinness's ultrasonic solution; same patent, different crazy idea. Apparently if you vibrate the beer using an ultrasonic machine - like the kind they use to clean your engagement ring at the jewellers - "the surge" will begin and the foamy fun isn't far off.

But was Guinness planning on giving out a free ultrasonic generator with every can of beer? That could really cut into profits. On the plus side, we could all clean our jewellery and eye glasses in the comfort of our own home, while tossing back a cold one.

Guinness also saw great potential in polystyrene, or what North Americans call Styrofoam. The concept was simple: You put some broken up polystyrene pieces into a sieve and pour the beer through the sieve into a glass.

No doubt, if you pour beer over Styrofoam it will produce a nice, frothy head. But I don't imagine Styrofoam tastes very good - no matter how much beer you pour on it - and I doubt the strainer would catch it all.

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