Fans of nitro beers — particularly Guinness’ stout — have probably noticed the fascinating cascade of bubbles that form as the beer settles. It’s a non-intuitive behavior — bubbles rise since they’re lighter than the surrounding fluid. So why do the bubbles appear to sink in these beers?
There are several effects at play here. Firstly, overall the bubbles in the beer are rising; even mixing nitrogen gas into a beer in place of carbon dioxide doesn’t change that. But pint glasses typically flare so that they’re wider at the top than at the bottom. Since the bubbles rise essentially straight up, this causes a bubble-less film to form near the upper walls. And as that heavier fluid sinks, it pulls some of the tiny nitrogen bubbles with it. (You don’t see this effect in typical beers because the bubbles there are larger and thus too buoyant to get pulled down by the falling fluid.)
As for the cascading waves we see in the bubbles, this, too, comes from the shape of the glass. Hydrodynamically speaking, what’s happens as the fluid film slides down the pint glass is similar to what happens when rain runs downhill. Beyond a certain angle, the flow becomes unstable and will form rolls and waves of varying thickness instead of sinking in a thin, uniform layer. As the film goes, so go the bubbles being dragged along, giving everyone at the bar a brief but entertaining fluid dynamical show. (Image credits: pints – M. d’Itri; bubble cascade – T. Watamura et al.; research credit: T. Watamura et al.)