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Nitro Beer Takes a Walk on the Lighter Side

Nitro Beer Takes a Walk on the Lighter Side

Gary Glass was not convinced the nitro Belgian-style white ale his fellow Left Hand Brewing employees said they wanted would work. The head brewer of the Longmont, Colorado brewery is always working on new recipes and trialing batches that could one day become regular consumer offerings. This suggestion, which arose from a company survey asking about beers that workers wanted to see be made, however, he “thought was a terrible idea,” says Glass. 

It proved to be better and far more popular than Glass suspected. The company released its Belgian White Nitro in December last year. 

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Nitro is short in the brewing industry for nitrogenation, the infusion of gas to create a creamy body and distinctive, cake-like head. Think of Guinness, the legendary dry Irish stout, and its signature look. That’s it.  

In the not-too-distant past, this silky style was mostly resigned to stouts and porters. But times are changing, and this formerly rare technology has crossed over into a diverse array of craft beer styles—in a way that once would have been considered sacrilege.  

What Is Nitro Beer?  

The majority of draft and packaged beer is infused with carbon dioxide (CO2), the prickly carbonation that gives the finished product its fizz. The level of gas differs from beer to beer, depending upon the style. The standard nitrogenated beer has carbon dioxide, too, with a total gas breakdown of roughly 30% CO2 and 70% nitrogen (N2). 

The nitro pour was created by Guinness in the 1950s and the technology has developed further over the decades. On draft, the gases are combined in the beer and forced through specially outfitted taps with a restrictor plate that pushes the beer through small holes, which help to release the gases. “That leads to the beers that have big foamy head on top after everything settles down from the cascading bubbles from agitation,” says Steve Parkes, a long-time brewer and the director of the American Brewers Guild, a brewing school in Vermont. “Then you’ve got your thick foam layer on top, which has mostly nitrogen bubbles in it.”  

In canned and bottled versions, brewers like Guinness have taken to using a “widget,” a small ball filled with N2 that separates when the can is opened. It releases the gas into the beer and creates the same head as draft. But it’s not the only way to nitrogenate non-draft beers. Other brewers will add a drop of liquid nitrogen to the can or bottle before it’s filled and then a second one immediately before it’s capped. When the container is opened and poured, the effect is the same—no matter the style of beer. 

The Growth of Non-Stout Nitros 

Nearly two decades after it was founded, in 2011 Left Hand Brewing released its first nitro beer, a milk stout in bottles. It became an instant hit and put the brewery on the national radar as craft beer fans and others flocked to the smaller, American alternative to Guinness. Milk Stout Nitro would be released in cans several years later.  

The milk stout is the brewery’s flagship. But despite it being light on the palate, its dark color put off some drinkers, especially during warmer months when brightness can conjure up thoughts of refreshment. A light-hued Belgian-style white, often called a wit, is brewed with wheat, and often accented by orange peel and coriander. It can be a delightful summer sipper.  

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This is why Glass decided to give it a go, despite his initial reservations. “There was enough enthusiasm [in-house] for me to find an old home brew recipe and to give it a shot on the pilot system,” says Glass who previously worked as the director of the American Homebrew Association. “I really liked the results, and we did three more batches in the pilot system, then scaled it up to our 60-barrel brewhouse. Now we’re brewing it every two weeks.”  

The Left Hand Belgian White Nitro has quickly become a top seller for the brewery, but success outside of porters and stouts is not always guaranteed.  

Parkes notes that the hop-derived bitterness that is typical in many beers does not play well with the nitro treatment. The N2 often concentrates the bitterness into the foam, leaving the beer underneath a little lighter and brighter.  

This is one reason that the India pale ale, the best-selling category in craft beer, is not often given the nitro treatment. “It dulls the palate in a way that that diminishes the impact of hops,” says Parkes. “It just doesn’t work: it makes them taste worse.” 

Image Courtesy of Skylake Discount Liquors

That doesn’t mean some brewers haven’t tried. Guinness released a short-lived nitro IPA in 2015 (six-packs can still be found at certain retailers). The Boston Beer Company released a trio of Samuel Adams canned nitro beers around the same time that included an IPA, along with a coffee stout and a white ale.  

Left Hand’s Belgian-style white, however, manages to keep the citrus and spice from the base recipe, offering bright aromas and flavors with a bit of a creamy mouthfeel. The release suggests that there is renewed interest in exploring nitro styles beyond stouts and porters, where the roasted malts used in the recipe often accentuate flavors of coffee and chocolate.  

Guinness, unsurprisingly, has continued to push the nitro boundaries. Visiting its U.S.-based breweries in Maryland and Illinois will reveal nitro beers beyond the standard stout (which is still produced in Dublin). These offerings explore how gas plays with different ingredients and styles.  

“Here in Baltimore, we have a nitro passion fruit sour, a tangerine cream ale and a blood orange cream ale,” says Sean Brennan, the head brewer for North America at Guinness Open Gate Brewery and Barrel House in Baltimore. “Using the fruit, with the bubbles, it’s like a smoothie beer sorbet.” 

Fruited beers, which are popular among craft beer drinkers, seem to be enhanced by nitro. It lends a velvety character and increases tropical fruit aromas. Also, because they’re often made with fresh fruit or purees, fruit beers can boast vibrant hues that are dramatically accentuated by the contrast of a thick white head. 

These sorts of experiments with different ingredients and styles are helping brewers like Glass and Brennan to advance the science of making beer. It also gives them a chance to have fun and explore what consumers may gravitate toward next.  

“I want to keep playing with those to see where they land,” says Brennan.  

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