The Guinness widget is a small, plastic ball in beer cans.
During canning, pressurized nitrogen is added to the brew, which drips into a hole in the widget.
Once opened, the widget’s nitrogenous beer sprays into the rest of the beer giving it a velvety smooth texture.
Have you ever noticed the tinkling of a small object rattling the inside of an empty Guinness bottle or can?
That little gadget is called a widget and you should be thankful for that. It makes your beer taste like it’s fresh from the tap.
How the Guinness widget works
A widget is a hollow, spherical piece of food-grade plastic with a small hole in it, Guinness representatives told Insider via email.
It actually looks like a little ping pong ball.
During the canning process, brewers add liquid nitrogen to the beer just before it is sealed. The liquid nitrogen quickly evaporates in the container. But since the can is sealed, pressure builds up inside the can, forcing gas and liquid through the tiny hole in the widget, according to Guinness.
Then when you open the can you should hear a “pssshhh” sound. That’s the gas and liquid exiting the widget, which mixes with the beer, creating that head of foam that’s so iconic in a Guinness tap, Guinness said.
Canned Guinness requires you to pour the beer into a glass after opening, but the bottle widget (which is shaped like a rocket) is designed so you can enjoy the beer straight from the bottle.
Guinness released its first-generation widget in 1989
Guinness brewers first patented the idea of the widget in 1969. But it wasn’t until 1989 that they released their first-generation widget, Popular Science reported.
This first-generation widget was a flattened disc that sat on the bottom of the can. It did a good job if the beer was served cold, but if the beer was warm, it could overflow after the can was broken open, according to Cool Material.
In 1997, Guinness released the floating, spherical widget you can find in cans today – which they call the “smoothifier” – to solve this problem.
Carbon dioxide versus nitrogen in beer
Breweries typically use carbon dioxide to give a beer its typical bitter fizz, but when a drink calls for a sweeter, silkier experience — like drinking a Guinness — brewers brew the beer with nitrogen instead of carbon dioxide.
Guinness was even the world’s first nitro beer. Nitrogen bubbles are smaller than CO2 bubbles, so the resulting head and flavor is softer and more delicate.
Fergal Murray, a head brewer at Dublin City Brewing Co., told Forbes that there are 300 million bubbles in a pint of Guinness, compared to the up to 2 million bubbles in a typical lager.
Also, because nitrogen bubbles are smaller, they are more stable. Therefore, when you crack open a beer, more of the little bubbles remain intact. This — along with the smaller bubbles — gives the brew a thicker, more velvety “mouth feel” without the sour bite of carbonation with CO2, according to Home Brew Advice.
Due to the volatile nature of nitrogen gas in liquid, it’s difficult to maintain palatable levels of the gas in packaged beers once you’ve opened them. That’s where the Guinness widget comes into play, as it’s capable of slowly releasing nitrogen into the beer when opened.
Widgets have gained popularity since Guinness introduced them in the late 1980s. Other beers, such as Young’s Double Chocolate Stout, Murphy’s Stout, and Boddingtons Pub Ale all have widgets in their cans.
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