Tiny Bubbles: Brewers Hope Nitro Beers Will Be a Hit

Tech Talk by | Dec 2015 | Issue #107

In September 2014, Colorado’s Left Hand Brewing, the first US brewery to bottle nitrogenated beer, attempted to trademark the word “nitro” for its Milk Stout. More than a year later, after brewing heavyweights like Anheuser-Busch, Boston Beer and Oskar Blues jumped into the legal fray contesting the ownership of the word, the attraction of adding nitrogen to packaged beer has only grown. A search of BeerAdvocate’s database, for example, yields 225 current examples of beer with “nitro” in the name.

To date though, it’s an Irish brewery that produces the most familiar nitrogenated cans and bottles—products that have introduced many Americans to a new drinking experience. Arthur Guinness, the brewery’s founder, certainly didn’t plan to add an invisible chemical element to his ale in 1759, but 210 years later his company introduced (and patented) a system for releasing nitrogen into packaged beer, replicating a pour from a nitro tap and making it the world’s best-selling Stout after plastic widgets were added to cans of Guinness Draught in 1988.

Nitrogen is a gas that forms about 78 percent of the Earth’s atmosphere. Brewers use it in the carbonation process to change the mouthfeel of a beer, as it is insoluble in liquid. Typically, a nitrogenated beer contains about 1 or 1.2 volumes of CO2 compared to 2.5 volumes of CO2 in a non-nitrogenated beer. In effect, this creates a thicker head of tiny bubbles in the glass and a smoother, creamier sensation on the palate.

In September, the celebrated Dublin brewer launched Guinness Nitro IPA, and early next year, Boston Beer will follow suit with its first in the category: a Nitro White Ale, a Nitro Coffee Stout and a Nitro IPA, initially on draft, then in cans.

“There’s a lot of science that goes into developing nitrogenated beers,” says Boston Beer founder and owner Jim Koch. “It’s not easy. Most beers don’t work well on nitro because they’re not designed for it. You can’t simply take a beer that’s meant to be carbonated and put it on nitro, it just doesn’t work that way. You have to take a completely different approach, pushing the recipe, so that its expresses the flavors you’re really looking for in the taste. Nitro beers do not involve carbonic acid, tongue sting, big bubbles to release aroma, or typical beer pH levels.”

On the other side of the country, California’s Firestone-Walker is releasing a Nitro Milk Stout and a nitro version of its flagship Double Barrel Ale in celebration of the brewery’s 20th anniversary in 2016. Brewmaster Matt Brynildson thinks Firestone-Walker (and its public) is ready for these new canned nitrogenated beers.

“I’ve always been a fan,” he says. “From a technology standpoint, it is pure genius actually. I think where it got a bad wrap is when CAMRA [the Campaign for Real Ale] in the UK really came out against it when they were trying to revitalize cask ale, and rightfully so. I honestly think these things could coexist, especially in the US market.”

Brynildson, who has been with Firestone-Walker since 2001, began his brewing career at Goose Island and remembers the original IPA the Chicago-based brewery released was intended to be served on a nitro tap.

“In 1998, we were formulating, Greg Hall and I, Goose Island IPA,” he says. “The whole concept was to do this really hoppy, English-inspired but American influenced IPA. When we released it all the draft in the Chicago area was nitro. It just happened that we preferred the carbonated version instead and did away with the nitro.”

Not everyone is sold on the use of nitrogen in beer, however. Neil Witte, field quality and training manager at Duvel Moorgat USA, sees nitro beers becoming more popular but expresses some hesitation about the trend. Boulevard, one of the brands he oversees, retired its Nitro Dry Stout in 2013.

“We were doing this [nitro] before it became popular,” he says. “And I personally like a Stout with nitro—maybe because the original is Guinness. But I am not a huge fan of other styles with nitro. I like the carbonation in a hoppy beer. When you nitro an IPA, it loses some of the hop character that you are expecting. I feel the same way about some cask ale, those done incorrectly don’t do it for me either. If I am in the UK and drinking a fully cask-conditioned beer like Fuller’s, then sure. If I am drinking a warm flat version of a regular carbonated beer I normally like, it has no appeal.”