Each year, when St. Patrick's Day rolls around, all things Irish come to mind: shamrocks, leprechauns and Dublin's own signature brew -- Guinness beer with its bubbles that sink in a unique way.
On March 17, as you raise a glass in honour of St. Patty, think about this: beer is a scientific wonder, and it can teach you a thing or two about physics, chemistry, biology and even medicine.
Let's start with physics. Why do the bubbles sink in a pint of Guinness? The statement the bubbles are sinking is only partially true. A circular current is formed in the glass after the beer is poured. Only around the edges of the glass do the bubbles actually sink. In the centre, they are rising. The rising bubbles are concealed by the thick dark colour of the ale, leaving you only able to see the sinking bubbles on the outside of the current.
Beer also has a history and science, which is a lot richer than Arthur Guinness' dark stout. This beverage has been brewed for around 6,000 years, by almost every culture on Earth. Next to water and tea, beer is the most consumed beverage on the planet and certain countries even have laws devoted to exactly how it should be brewed.
The brewing process itself is a marvel of biology and chemistry, which involves only a few common ingredients. The recipe for your favourite brew generally calls for water, barley, hops and yeast, along with a little bit of time. Mixing these ingredients alone does not yield a proper beer. The whole process is very precise, in short, it involves the fermentation of the sugars in barley and hops. Fermentation is a process in which sugars are converted into alcohol by living organisms.
Yeast, a tiny fungus species, is the organism that causes the fermentation of beer. It eats the sugars and releases carbon dioxide. This is the reason why your belly can swell a bit after a few drinks, leaving you with the telltale sign of the beer belly. Yeast also produces the alcohol found in ales, the same chemical that leads to feelings of euphoria and dulled senses, as well as, a sore head the morning after a few too many.
Aside from the easy-to-find ingredients, and the effects it can have on the brain, there may be another reason as to why this beverage has lasted as long -- it can have positive effects on the human body.
Recent research out of the Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston has shown that small quantities of beer, on a daily basis, reduce the risk of gaining weight. As well, the silicon found in a pint of suds, can help to prevent osteoporosis, by adding density to bones, according to Dr. Jonathan Powell at the University of London.
So, as you raise a toast to the Irish, you can feel a little less guilty about the calories in the beer by considering the science that went into it. Why not have fun with what you've learned, and quiz your friends?
Have a happy and safe St. Patrick's Day and I urge you to drink in moderation as you celebrate. Don't test your luck, even if you are Irish. Please plan ahead and don't drink and drive.
March 13, 2010
The Sudbury Star
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