I've heard that adding cleaned pennies to the wort can help prevent boil-overs. I guess they could provide nucleation points- I dunno.
Any truth to this, or is it just an old wives' tail?
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In the fourth & final Brew Strong episode on high gravity brewing, Jamil, John, and Tasty touched briefly on using pre-1981 pennies in the boil to help provide minerals (Copper, Zinc) to the yeast to help them survive the stress of a big fermentation. (They mention it around the 30:00 mark.)
The effect that you are describing is that of adding a nucleation point (or site) to the kettle, as you said. A nucleation point provides a place for bubbles to form and release and will help to prevent boilovers. That being said, though, a penny (or a few pennies) will not have enough surface area to help a batch that large. At places that sell cooking gadgets, you can get a ceramic "boilover preventer". I have used these for cooking, and they work pretty well.
As for brewing, though, I have to recommend Fermcap-S. It is one of those things that once you use it, you will never know how you brewed without it. The cost is very minimal, when you determine how long a bottle lasts you. Last night's brew session, I realized I didn't have any and started without. I was having really bad foaming issues that was causing me to back off the boil, so I added a couple of Gas-X pills. In a pinch, this is something I have done a couple of times, and it works well - although not as good as Fermcap-S. Cost per batch will easily fall into favor of Fermcap-S, as well, when comparing the two.