Nitro, the trending term in beer circles today, is not a former “American Gladiator,” or the thing you put under your tongue when you have chest pain. Nitro refers to the practice of putting nitrogen in beer, as opposed to typical carbon dioxide.
Nitrogen was first popularized in Ireland, where the pioneering Guinness brewery uses it in all its draught forms. Sitting at a pub in downtown Dublin, sipping Guinness Draught, is totally different than anywhere else. Nitrogen infuses beer with a soft and creamy mouth feel that CO2 can’t replicate.
The taste is sublime, but the mesmerizing effect of the beer being poured into a glass is just as spellbinding. Watching the dark ruby liquid flow into the glass while the nitrogen churns it up and creates creamy clouds of flavor is amazing. The beer starts out looking like a whole glass of foam, but as the nitrogen starts working, you notice the creamy head forming at the top and the beer appearing miraculously from the bottom up. The bubbles actually seem to defy gravity as they work their way up the side of the glass!
Guinness Draught in the can is the closest you can get to an original Dublin-style pour and taste. Guinness places a widget in the bottom of the can, which releases the nitrogen when opened. Pour the beer hard into a glass and let the magic happen! Guinness’ American brewers have recently released the Guinness Nitro IPA. India pale ales are the hottest thing going, and adding nitro is a new twist.
American brewers have finally caught on. The last few years has seen a few enterprising craft brewers joining the nitro crowd, Left Hand Brewing, of Longmont, Colo., being the domestic pioneer.
The Left Hand Milk Stout has been a favorite for many years, but when they released the Nitro Milk Stout, it opened up new flavor frontiers for beer lovers. The same beer takes on two totally different flavor profiles.
As mentioned above, the addition of nitro softens the edges and gives a rounder, more full mouth feel. The original milk stout, while still creamy and smooth, is a little sharper on the tongue. Try it both ways to see the difference.
Left Hand also just came out with the Hard-Wired Nitro Porter. It has the rich creamy head you expect form a nitro beer, but is rich in coffee flavors. They describe it as a “gratifying blend of your morning cup of coffee and your 5 o’clock beer.”
Another pioneer in the market is Wasatch Brewing of Utah. A Wisconsin native who moved to Utah in 1986, Greg Schiff was dismayed to find virtually no good beer in the conservative, God-fearing mountains of Utah. He took the leap and formed Wasatch Brewing and makes some great beer.
Along with brewing, Schiff loves to poke a little fun at the culture of Utah. Some of his beer names, like Provo Girl, Evolution Amber Ale and Polygamy Porter soon became famous for their tongue-in-cheek names and great flavors.
In 2015, Wasatch came out with “the little sister-wife” of its Polygamy Porter. The tagline is “bring some home for the wives!” Wasatch discovered a proprietary way to infuse its beer with nitro without the use of a widget. The Polygamy Porter pours jet black, and has a delicious off-white head that throws off amazing aromas of chocolate and caramel.
You know a trend is gaining steam when the “big boys” get in on the act.
Samuel Adams, the pioneering craft brewer of over 60 different types of beers, has just released its nitro series. The brewer has three different types of beers that come in 16-ounce cans with the great nitrogen widget. Those include a coffee stout, a white ale and an IPA.
Notice that most of the beers coming in nitro options are rich, creamy, opulent stouts and porters. This is a natural progression. The nitrogen really softens the edges of any beer it is added to. Pale ales and India pale ales are usually popular for their sharp and intense flavors of citrus, pine and fruit. Nitro will soften the edges of the strong bitter hops.
Most hopheads want and enjoy the sharp intense flavors. However, there is a place for nitro and I think we will be seeing more and more brewers experimenting with it to create new and exciting flavors and experiences.
It is a great time to be a beer lover. The creativity and energy of America’s brewers will continue to excite and titillate us with great flavors. Enjoy in moderation. Cheers!