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Research into the science of bubbles is transforming drinks

How the science of bubbles is transforming drinks

Research into the science of bubbles is transforming drinks from champagne to sparkling water. Alice Lascelles takes a tongue-tingling tour

Research into the science of bubbles is transforming drinks from champagne to sparkling water. Alice Lascelles takes a tongue-tingling tour

Alice Lascelles | October/November 2018

I blame my own fascination with fizzy drinks on my grandmother’s Sodastream, a gunmetal grey model from the 1970s that farted and burped most thrillingly. I’m not sure the drinks it produced – insipid cola, overly sweet ginger ale – were actually all that nice. But to my seven-year-old self, they still seemed incredibly luxurious. And 35 years on, not much has changed, if I’m honest. I still love a drink with a bubble: champagne, gin and tonics, and nose-tickling spritzes. Even humble soda water feels like a trade-up to me.

Apparently I’m not alone. A whole new generation of health-conscious millennials are now getting their kicks from fizzy drinks. “With sugar, artificial additives and, increasingly, alcohol on the blacklist, texture has emerged as a new frontier for liquid innovation,” says Paul Louis, director of Vandal, a drinks analyst. “We’re seeing much greater focus now on mouth-feel, which has resulted in a lot more sophisticated and nuanced carbonated drinks.”

Newcomers include the Copenhagen Sparkling Tea Company, which does a range of artisan sparkling teas packaged to look like champagne; and Coffer Cold Brew Coffee Soda from Texas, a naturally fermented, sweetened brew that looks like a craft beer. Arla, Britain’s biggest milk producer, recently announced plans to trial a fizzy pink milk drink in a bid to boost falling dairy sales. And this summer, Heineken launched a sparkling water laced with Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), otherwise known as the stuff in cannabis that gets you high.

The first mechanically carbonated drink was Mr Bewley’s Mephitic Julep, a mix of still water and “fixed air” – what we now call carbon dioxide – that was developed in the 1760s by Richard Bewley, an English apothecary. To create his sparkling beverage – which was originally designed as a health tonic – he used a system invented by Joseph Priestley, the theologian who discovered oxygen. But it was the carbonating device patented in 1783 by Jean Jacob Schweppe, a German-born jeweller, that brought fizzy soft drinks to the wider public.

Bubbles in wine, by contrast, used to be considered a fault. It wasn’t until the end of the 17th century that the champenoise finally accepted that they could enhance the drinking experience (the English, it should be noted, had been enjoying fizzy wine for several decades by this point). Dom Pérignon, a Benedictine monk, often gets the credit for putting the bubbles into wine; the truth is he spent most of his early career trying to keep them out.

These days big champagne houses devote time and money to achieving the perfect mousse with the help of people like Gérard Liger-Belair, a physicist and “bubble-ologist” at the University of Reims and author of “Uncorked: The Science of Champagne”.

“In the past few years, we have been able to examine in minute detail how bubbles behave in glasses and how changing parameters of the drinks and/or the glass could modify the tasting experience,” Liger-Belair explains from his laboratory. “For example, knowing the mechanics of the very complex and subtle bubble-bursting process can be used to enhance the aroma experience.” In other words, you can manipulate a champagne’s bouquet simply by tweaking the way the bubbles burst.

It was partly Liger-Belair’s research into aroma that prompted wine professionals to jettison the traditional champagne flute. A tall flute might look more elegant, says Liger-Belair, but its shape causes a build-up of carbon dioxide in the headspace of the glass that interferes with the process of nosing. If you really want to get the full aroma of a champagne, he says, then you’re better off drinking out of a white-wine glass.

It also helps if the glasses haven’t been cleaned too well; the fibres cast off from paper and cloth create the tiny air pockets – or nucleation sites – that bubbles need to form. If you poured champagne into a glass that was surgically clean, it wouldn’t bubble at all.

“Bubbles are fabulous because they make a drink multi-sensory before it’s even gone in the mouth,” says sensory scientist Professor Barry Smith. “Just think of a glass of champagne. It’s sonic – you have the sound of the cork coming off, you can hear the bubbles fizzing in the glass. And visually it’s very dramatic too – we see millions of bubbles rising, but in a random motion, so it attracts our visual attention. And each bubble is like a little flavour delivery system that carries the odours of the drink up to your nose. All of these things make champagne very multi-sensory – as wines go it’s hugely dynamic.”

Sitting in his office, surrounded by boxes labelled “nose clips” and “Bollinger”, Smith plays recordings of soda water, prosecco and champagne being poured and asks me to identify which is which, just from the sound. To my surprise, it’s easy: the big bubbles in the carbonated water are brusque and clattery; the bubbles in the prosecco, which gets its secondary fermentation in a tank, sound busier and higher pitched; and the bubbles in the champagne, which come from a long, slow, secondary fermentation in a bottle, surge creamily, like a wave running up a beach. To my ear, anyway, they sound more expensive.

Bubbles also give us a buzz, says Smith, by stimulating the trigeminal nerve – the same one that rings bells when you eat too much horseradish. “In the wild that would signal ‘danger! Don’t eat this!’” he says. “But humans enjoy a bit of that.”

We’re also getting more discerning about the type of bubble we’re buying, says Paul Louis: “We’re seeing a trend towards products with a finer fizz and new terminology like ‘light bubbles’. There isn’t just one type of carbonation any more.”

The result has been products like Perrier Fine Bulles, a Perrier variant with a more delicate mousse, and the Sodastream Power Automatic Sparkling Water Maker, which can deliver three different levels of carbonation at the touch of a button.

I’ve got one of these Sodastreams. It’s shiny and black with flashing lights, and anytime someone comes to dinner, they ask to play with it. I demonstrate the different settings and expound on the virtues of gentle carbonation over big clunking bubbles. But when I’m on my own, I always carbonate to the max. Because, as any seven-year-old will tell you, when it comes to fizz, the more bubbles the better.