A Beginner’s Guide to Nitro Beers
Most people are familiar with Guinness—an Irish stout that has been infusing beer with nitrogen since the 1950s which brings creaminess and tiny bubbles. In the past decade, craft breweries and major brands across the world have brewed nitro beers, making them more mainstream than ever before.
Nitro beers can be found on draft at bars and breweries globally. Longmont Colorado’s Left Hand Brewing Company even hosts a nitro beer festival annually and invites breweries from all over the world. But what makes nitro beer something worth seeking out? Here’s everything you need to know.
What Is Nitro Beer?
In short, nitro beer is a style of beer that has been infused with nitrogen. The element is less soluble in beer than the naturally occurring carbon dioxide and doesn’t dissolve as well, leaving a bubbly and creamy mouthfeel and altering the flavor. This also “creates that really creamy head on top of the beer,” explains Eric Wallace, Colorodo-based Left Hand Brewing Company’s co-founder and president.
The cool cascade when poured comes from nitrogen “getting exposed to an atmosphere with a lot less pressure than it would have inside of the keg or the can,” says Joel Field, head brewer of Calgary, Canada’s Citizen Brewing Company.
The bubbles do more than just offer a different experience than your average beer. “Nitrogen allows more of the flavor to come through,” says Wallace. “It’s not a prickly attack like a soda or a normal [carbon dioxide] beer.”
How Is Nitro Beer Made?
Once beer has been added to a keg or bottle, a brewer can then add nitrogen. Carbon dioxide, which naturally occurs in beer, creates carbonic acid and gives beer a bitter flavor. But nitrogen neutralizes the bitterness and can make a stout more roasty or make sours more fruit-forward, says Field.
When making a nitro beer, you must first keg or bottle the beer, and nitrogen is added from a pressurized tank. Field checks the pressure limit of the tanks and raises the pressure to the safest and highest point. He keeps the temperature cold—around 30°F—because gasses dissolve better in colder liquids. “They lose kinetic energy, so they slow down and get picked up by the liquid better,” he explains.
When it’s time for packaging canned beers, liquid nitrogen is poured flat into the can. “There’s a nitrogen gun, and it shoots a little pellet of liquid nitrogen into the can, which immediately starts boiling because it doesn’t want to be liquid at room temp,” says Field. “You put in a little extra, so by the time it gets sealed, most of that [nitrogen] will still be inside.”
He aims for 25% carbon dioxide and 75% nitrogen. “We don’t really have the equipment to measure nitrogen levels inside of beers, so it’s really more of a sensory thing of making sure it looks right when it pours,” he says.
Then, they make sure the beer tastes and smells right, and adjust accordingly. “I’ll generally make [beer] more sour,” he says. “I’ll usually put a little bit more [nitrogen] in there because without that [carbon dioxide] to elevate that flavor and bring it to the forefront, it’s muted just to a degree. Over-emphasizing the flavors you’re trying to get across when you’re making a nitro beer is important.”
Not all beers are cut out for nitrogen, though. “I find things without a lot of body generally will suffer a bit because you don’t have that creaminess,” he says. Field’s found success with IPAs, stouts and sours, but not so much with lagers—yet it’s possible. “As long as you’re adjusting recipes to make sure you have that bit of thickness, either from oats or wheat or something like that, I think the sky’s the limit with it,” he says.
Nitro Beers to Try
90 Points Wine Enthusiast
Bitter, but with a creamy mouthfeel, this dances between sweet and roast from the get-go. The nitro treatment gives it a smooth texture and classic cascading effect in a glass, though there’s prickly carbonation to keep things lively. Chocolate, vanilla and coffee all mingle together, with just a slight spicy tang that peeks in now and again. –John Hall
Gary’s Wine & Marketplace
94 Points Wine Enthusiast
This milk porter receives the nitro treatment before canning. The result is a smooth, boozy, black licorice-inspired ale, with a prick of clove spice. It all morphs into flavors of vanilla cream soda and a hint of cherry cordial. There is depth and nuance to this on the nose and initial sip that quickly yields to a pleasing roast bitterness. This beer feels like it needs a special occasion, but it’s good on any cold night that calls for excitement. –JH
Total Wine & More
90 Points Wine Enthusiast
Sam’s new releases hit on the popularity of the nitro craze, and this coffee stout is the easy winner of the lineup. It’s smooth and silky, as one would expect from a nitro brew, almost like a plush, pillowy cloud of chocolate-coffee marshmallow. The lush mouthfeel boasts rich flavors of creamed coffee, toffee, chocolate-covered cocoa nibs and roasted malt that carry through to the clean and slightly bitter finish. It’s an impressive and beautiful pour that will serve well for breakfast, lunch or dessert pairings. –Lauren Buzzeo
$ Price Varies
Points Wine Enthusiast
Now available in widget cans, Left Hand’s Nitro Milk Stout, America’s top-selling craft nitro stout, is not one to be overlooked. It pours with a beautiful presentation—and should be poured hard from the glass bottle, normal from can—as upward waves of foam cascade to the top of a dark black glass. The pillowy head releases initial notes of rich malt, roasted nuts, mocha and cocoa powder. The plush, smooth, mouthfilling palate offers more of the same, with lingering notes of vanilla ice cream topped with roasted cocoa nibs, toasted walnuts and espresso powder. It’s decadent, for sure, but it’s superbly balanced and utterly delicious. –LZ
Total Wine & More
How Do You Pour a Nitro Beer?
Believe it or not, there is a technique to properly pour nitro beer. In fact, Left Hand has instructions on the bottle to “pour hard” to activate the nitro. Unfortunately, drinkers tend to miss it and complain of flat beer. “If you have too much [carbon dioxide], you’re going to get a really foamy overpour. It may not have that creaminess. It may be kind of dead by the time they finally get it in the glass,” Wallace says.
So, how do you pour a nitro beer? “Do the opposite of what you think you would prudently. Flip the bottle 180 degrees up above the rim of the glass and let it slug into the glass,” Wallace says.
Yes, you really should flip the bottle completely upside-down. Part of the appeal of nitro beer is the aesthetic of watching the gradient cascade, similar to nitro coffee. “It’s a great bar trick to somebody who’s never seen the hard pour,” Wallace says. “You crack it, you dump it in the glass and they instantly spring backward because they know it’s going to foam all over and soak them with beer. And it doesn’t.”
Plus, the beer should be kept cold because temperature changes the gas dynamics. “The [carbon dioxide] is going to want to rip out faster,” he adds.
Where Did Nitro Beer Come from?
Nitrogen beer likely came as an alternative to cask ale, which uses a gooseneck pump to pull the beer. Adding the nitrogen to the cask prevents the beer from oxidizing and tasting differently the next day.
“Nitro beers were originally intended as a way of creating that cask ale effect while avoiding oxidation,” Field says. “Because nitrogen is inert, it’s not going to screw up your beer flavor versus when you’re using a cask and you’re pumping it with one of those beer engines. You’re introducing air, which, of course, has oxygen in it, which then will oxidize your beer.”
In 1959, mathematician Michael Ash figured out how to add nitrogen to Guinness, so the beer didn’t have to be stored in two different casks. Then, Guinness introduced a widget in 1989—a small ball of nitrogen—to its bottles and cans.
How Is European Nitro Beer Different From U.S. Nitro Beer?
Wallace doesn’t see much distinction between nitro beers across the board. “I would say they don’t differ,” he says. “I think there’s a bit more variety here in the States than in other countries. It’s almost like more novelty in a lot of places.”