Craft beer can be a complicated topic. Lots of styles, types, glassware and so much more. On top of all that, you can add gas to that list. When I say gas I am referring to CO2 and Nitrogen. Most are familiar with CO2 as that is the gas used in 99% of beer but what is a nitro beer?
Let’s uncover what nitrogen does to craft beer and why you might want to order more of them.
What Is A Nitro Beer?
When it comes to carbonating beer, there are two options: carbon dioxide (CO2) and nitrogen (N2).
You are familiar with CO2 because that is how almost every beer is carbonated. CO2 provides the effervescent aspects to your brew. It creates bubbles, head and releases aroma.
The use of nitrogen to carbonate beer is not nearly as common. In fact, for the longest time, Guinness was really the only nitrogen carbonated (nitro) beer available.
Nitro beers use a mix of about 70% nitrogen and 30% carbon dioxide according to craftbeer.com. The use of nitrogen has a unique reaction in the beer.
How Nitrogen Changes A Beer
Nitrogen doesn’t dissolve as easily as carbon dioxide. The nitrogen produces tiny bubbles and a smooth, creamy beer. In addition, most people find that it dulls the bitterness as well.
The malt flavors are accentuated and the mouthfeel is much fuller compared to carbon dioxide.
But before you notice any of that, you will notice the appearance of the beer. Once poured, the nitrogen bubbles appear to be moving down into the beer. This is referred to as cascading. It’s really impressive.
And while the bubbles along the outside are moving down, the nitrogen bubbles in the middle of the glass are moving up. They create a thick, full head. It’s almost like a whipped topping on sitting on the beer.
Related Article: Modern Times Black House Nitro Review
What Styles Are Available As Nitro Beers
For years, Guinness was the only beer you could find served via nitrogen. It was great for their brand as it was a unique look and provided an experience no one else was matching.
But as the craft beer industry began to grow, this changed.
Now most craft brewery taprooms or beer bars have at least one of their tap handles dedicated to nitrogen. And the style of beer that you will find on that tap handle will vary.
The majority of the time, you’ll find dark beers on nitro. Much like Guinness, dark beers play well with nitrogen since a thicker, creamier mouthfeel pairs well with the flavors of a dark beer. For example, the roast and sweetness of a Russian Imperial Stout are amplified when in nitrogen.
But breweries enjoy trying new things and that includes what they put on their nitrogen tap.
I’ve seen IPAs, English Milds, Stouts, Porters, and Fruit Beers on nitrogen. I am not sure if I’ve ever found a lager on nitro but I am sure someone has done it.
On Tap Versus Packaged Beer
As stated earlier, Guinness dominated the nitro beer world for decades but that is quickly changing.
Breweries have installed nitrogen taps in their taprooms and that is a great way to experience this style of beer. However, most craft beer consumption happens in the home. So there’s a huge opportunity to provide nitro beers that customers can take home.
In 2011, Left Hand Brewing was able to successfully bottle a nitro beer. It was their Milk Stout. For those of you that have had their Nitro Milk Stout, you know it’s really good.
To achieve the full nitrogen impact, the beer bottle must be completely inverted when pouring.This creates the most agitation and releases the nitrogen. The result is a cascading nitrogen pour.
Since then, they have produced many other nitrogen beers and others have followed behind them. However, others have used cans instead of bottles. And just this year, Left Hand started shipping their Milk Stout in cans as well.
Earlier this year, I wrote a Craft Beer Spotlight on Modern Times Black House Nitro Stout – check out that review to learn more about my thoughts on nitro beers.
Sam Adams released a series of nitro beers in early 2016. This lineup included a coffee stout, white ale and an IPA. However, reviewing their site, I couldn’t locate them so there’s a chance that they are no longer available.
Finding bottled or canned nitro beers is not easy. There’s just not many available so you are probably more likely to get a nitro beer at your local taproom.
Related Article: Why Sam Adams Selling Would Hurt Craft Beer
My Opinion Of Nitro Beers
I see a lot of people get excited about a craft beer being on nitrogen. It’s hard to deny how amazing they look. Those cascading bubbles and thick, foamy head are appealing.
But since most taprooms only have one or two tap handles dedicated to nitrogen, you aren’t likely to be given many options when it comes to what styles are available. In most cases, it will be a milk or oatmeal stout.
While I am always interested in trying a nitro beer; I can’t say that it always makes them better. Some beers need the crispness that CO2 provides.
Other beers are taken to the next level with nitrogen. They gain a heavier mouthfeel as well as becoming slightly creamy. I normally gravitate towards things dark beers can be made better with nitro but lighter body ales can benefit from it as well.
I’m a big fan of Left Hand Brewing Nitro Milk Stout and love that I can get it to enjoy at home. So I can recommend that one.
And I encourage you to try nitro beers at your local taproom when given the chance. If they offer the same beer on CO2 and Nitro then get a taster pour of both and see which you like best.
Nitro beers aren’t going away, they allow for a unique experience and brewers are always looking for ways to deliver something new to their customers.
Do You Enjoy Nitro Beers?