The Beer Necessities: What is Nitro Beer?
“Whether in the form of a pint of Guinness at your local bar, or an experimental craft brew at a faraway taproom, you’ve more than likely had a run in with nitro beer. And as the industry continues to expand, this creamy, silky form of beer only continues to grow with it, charming brewers, bartenders, and drinkers alike. But what exactly is the stuff, anyway?
Short for “nitrogenated,” nitro beer earns its fizz from — and is propelled to your glass by — nitrogen rather than carbon dioxide.
“Nitrogen produces smaller bubbles, creating a smoother, richer mouthfeel,” explains Carl Heinz, head brewer at Breckenridge Brewery in Littleton, Colorado. “It offers a different experience.”
An experience, Heinz says, that people definitely crave — as he observed when the brewery began serving its oatmeal stout on nitro twelve years ago. “It was an instant hit, which turned into an instant headache — mostly from keeping pace of production with a super-painstaking process,” he says.
Nitrogenating the beer might have been a pain — but it was totally worth it. So much so that in 2015, the brewery expanded its line up and launched an entire nitro series, which now includes Nitro Vanilla Porterand Nitro Lucky U IPA, and seasonal pours such as Nitro Orange Cream Ale in the summer, and Nitro Pumpkin Spice Latte Stout in the fall. Best of all, these beauties are not only available on draught — they’re now canned, too, thanks to a $2 million investment by Breckenridge.
“We utilized Ball Corp’s technology to create a state-of-the-art can that has a fixed widget on the bottom,” Heinz explains. “Once placed, the can is filled with the beer and the nitrogen is added prior to the can being sealed. When the can is opened, the nitrogen is released from the widget, creating the creamy head and cascade effect when poured.”
Because nitrogen isn’t water soluble, the bubbles created by the gas tend to sink rather than float like CO2 does. That’s why a nitro beer appears to cascade down the glass as it settles, creating that thick head up top. Nitrogen also produces much smaller bubbles, providing the beer with a creamier mouthfeel, and accentuating maltier characteristics (which is why you so often see porters and stouts on a nitro tap).
Perhaps unsurprisingly, an Irish stout we all know and love was first to get the nitro treatment: Guinness. Launched in 1959, the nitro beer keg was invented by Michael Ash, a scientist who worked for the centuries-old brewery. And in order to harness the magic of nitro in to-go vessels, ten years later, brewers Tony Carey and Sammy Hildebrand at Guinness’s St James’s Gate brewery in Dublin would create a system that allowed the gas to release from a separate compartment.
It wasn’t until the brewery created the first the widget in 1984 that nitro-spiked cans of beer started tasting as good as Guinness poured from the tap. England’s now discontinued Boddingtons Pub Ale soon followed as the first nitrogenated golden ale — also to be popularized in cans.
While Guinness has remained an international staple for decades, it was arguably Colorado’s Left Hand Brewing Co. that sparked significant American interest in nitro beers, when in 2011, the brewery released a nitro version of their popular Milk Stout at the Great American Beer Festival. It was a hit, and shortly after the event, the beer began showing up in bottles across the country.
Today, the technology used to make cans and bottles of nitro beer has evolved to be easier to implement. That means more and more breweries are capitalizing on the technique, going beyond stouts and porters to add different styles beers into the nitro mix.
“Typically, the only nitro beers available were either dry stouts or cream ales produced overseas,” says Founders Brewing Co. co-founder and President, Dave Engbers. “In today’s landscape we have a number of breweries experimenting with this great alternative and we will continue to experiment with different nitrogenated beer styles.”
Founders Brewing adds nitrogen to some of their most popular brews, including their Oatmeal Stout, Pale Ale, and Rubaeus, a raspberry ale. The latter remains the most unique, but Founders is hardly alone in the quest to nitrogenate atypical brews. Today you can find nitrogenated IPAs, American ales, white ales, Scottish strong ales, and everything in between.
If you’re looking to experiment as a drinker, see if you can track down the five following nitro beers in cans and/or bottles — all of which are prime examples of the wide range of flavors and experiences that the serving style can offer.
Park City, Utah
In 1986, Greg Schirf opened up the first brewery in Utah — so it’s not surprising that he was one of the first to get on the nitro beer train. Currently, his brewpub offers its popular Polygamy Porter with nitro gas both on tap and in the bottle, adding a lovely creaminess to the chocolate and malty notes of the original brew. It has a higher ABV than the classic Polygamy Porter (up from 4% to 6%) so you also get a little more bang for your buck.
This Longmont brewery has always been hip to the can scene (after all, they invented the crowler!), and now they can add nitrogenated beer to their list of offerings. That’s right: the Scottish strong ale that so many love can now be found enjoyed a smoother head and pleasing coffee-tinged, dessert-like undertones, thanks to the addition of nitro gas.
When you think of cream ale you might imagine something rich and frothy with the essence of a milkshake. Those are not actually typical characteristics of the style, but nitrogenating a cream ale — a unique, pale, hybrid style — does get pretty close! This beer is like summer in a tallboy can, and brings to mind drippy orange creamsicles and hot afternoons by the pool.
Fairly new on the nitro scene is this white ale from one of the longest standing craft breweries in the U.S. Its body is like that of a wheat beer, and it has that same cloudiness. On the palate, you’ll find warming spices and a comforting bright orange essence. And it comes in a can, which means you can take it with you wherever you go!
As we’ve mentioned, stout works incredibly well on nitro — and this Denver brewery has given their famous Yeti a burst of tiny bubbles to make it a smoother, richer indulgence, along with its signature toasty notes of burnt caramel and nutty toffee. Despite the full flavor, surprisingly, the beer only tops out at 5% ABV.”
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