Behind the Beer

Good Beer Gas: Nitro Beers Explained

You may have heard the term floated around in a brewpub, or perhaps you’ve even sampled this unique beverage. But what is nitro beer precisely, and how is it different than other beers?

For the past 60 years, nitro beer has done nothing less than revolutionize the beer industry. More specifically, many stout beers like Guinness have been entirely changed through the use of the nitro gas process.

In this article, we’ll sip our way through the history of nitro beer and what sets it apart from the rest. We’ll even throw in some of our favorite nitro beers at the end of the article.

What Is Nitro Beer?

Since nitro beer’s development, it’s been increasing in popularity with craft breweries and taprooms around the world. The name itself refers to how nitro beer is made. Nitro beers are made by utilizing a 70 percent nitrogen and 30 percent carbon dioxide mixture to provide beer with a very light carbonation and a thick and creamy foam head. Drinkers are often delighted with the carbonated bubbles that appear to float down to the bottom of the bottle instead of up.

Does Nitro Beer Taste Different?

Drinkers of nitro beer can definitely expect a uniquely textured mouthfeel reminiscent of smooth cream and dotted with miniature bubbles. But what does the beer taste like? The answer to this question depends on the beer itself that is being processed with the nitrogen; however, many beer drinkers claim that beer infused with nitrogen has much more accentuated, balanced, and intense flavor.

There is no denying that nitrogen-infused beer does have an impact on the beverage’s taste. Nitrogen does tend to overpower the flavor of hops, meaning that beers that are malt-forward or stronger in flavor can often better benefit from this beer style.

The History of Nitro Beer

In the late 1950s, a mathematician at Guinness, Michael Ash, was looking for a way to produce the “perfect pint” and simultaneously improve the shelf life of bottled Guinness beer. In an interview with Good Beer Hunting, the current Guinness Ireland archive manager Eibhlin Colgan explained Guinness initially used to be stored in wooden casks and left the bottling to the bar publicans. It was seen that a change was needed in the way Guinness was stored and distributed when the demand in England for the stout beer began to increase. This is because beer drinkers in England preferred fast and cold lagers. Unfortunately, while some pressurized cask versions existed, they were often difficult to use and took a while.

Using his experience in the beer industry, and by implementing a love and understanding of math, Ash set out to develop a new draft system to improve Guinness beer delivery. With nitrogen and a two-chamber cask, Ash initially developed the solution prototype by 1957 and had a subsequent finished design and patent for Guinness by 1958.

Following the design and implementation of Guinness’s new nitro system, beer pubs and distributors outfitted with the device began seeing up to a 25 percent increase in sales. This change led to a notable corner being turned that impacted the way Guinness would be served and enjoyed from then on.

While stout beer is often associated with nitro, you can now find IPAs, ales, and other beer styles being served or packaged utilizing nitro methods. The coffee industry has even latched on to the use of nitrogen in brewing some cold-brewed drinks. In 2016, coffee giant Starbucks released a Nitro Cold Brew coffee that became a massive hit with consumers by 2019. We’ll explore some of the most popular beer brands who’ve perfected nitrogen use towards the end of this article.

Why Some Beer Drinkers Don’t Like Nitro Beer

While many beer drinkers appreciate nitro beer, some feel it was an unnecessary development that changes the taste of beer negatively. Non-believers in nitro often think that the beer goes flat too quickly and that the hops’ flavor is diminished too greatly, thus reducing the overall taste and enjoyment of the beer.

Popular Nitro Beer Brands

Nitro is becoming increasingly popular with various beers. Now, you can not only find it in a local taproom, but also widely available in canned and bottled versions sold in stores. Below, we’ll introduce you to some of the beer brands that have truly perfected the nitro style of beer.

  • Left Hand Nitro Milk Stout – This rich, full, smooth, and creamy beverage is exactly what nitro beer should be. Tiny cascading bubbles bring forth the complex aromas of brown sugar and vanilla, with just a hint of freshly roasted coffee. Purchasers of this beer can enjoy it in both cans and bottles all year, as well as in local taprooms offering it on draft.
  • Guinness Nitro IPA – The company that perfected the use of nitrogen in beer delivery, Guinness, developed an IPA version that incorporates five different hop varieties and roasted barley to deliver a taste most beer drinkers can appreciate. The Guinness Nitro IPA utilizes the same traditional Guinness yeast strain, while also adding a unique citrus aroma not often found in other Guinness beers.
  • Samuel Adams Nitro Coffee Stout – The Nitro Coffee Stout offering from Samuel Adams incorporated some of the world’s finest coffee from Sumatra and India to create a roasted and smooth chocolate flavor that is truly enhanced through the nitro process. Drinkers of this coffee stout beer will note that the smooth mouthfeel enriches the bold and vibrant flavors constructed by the elements used to create this brew.
  • Left Hand Hard Wired Nitro Coffee Porter – Sometimes, coffee and beer simply belong together; this fact is proven with Left Hand Brewing Company’s Hard Wired Nitro Coffee Porter offering. Through the use of Allegro brand coffee, Left Hand created a nitro beer that features strong notes of cacao, caramel, and roasted coffee. You might even find some subtle blueberry notes hidden within the nuanced flavors of this bold nitro beer.
  • Breckenridge Nitro Vanilla Porter – The Nitro Vanilla Porter offering from Breckenridge actually infuses imported vanilla beans right into the beer. While there are flavors of coffee, roasted nuts, caramel, and chocolate swirled throughout this nitro beer, the vanilla truly shines while you sip this smooth and creamy beer.
  • Breckenridge Nitro Irish Stout – If you’re looking for a stout that truly exemplifies what it means to be a nitro stout beer, you’ve found it with Breckenridge’s Nitro Irish Stout. This beer is a little on the dryer side, but this doesn’t take away from the soft and creamy mouthfeel offered by this beer. Beer drinkers enjoy the malt-forward, chocolate, and espresso notes that come forward in this bold but balanced brew.
  • Left Hand Bittersweet Nitro – Beer drinkers who tend to enjoy the more bitter offerings are sure to love the Bittersweet Nitro brew from Left Hand. Left Hand Brewing Company certainly knows what it’s doing when it comes to nitro beers, and this beer is no different. With each sip, flavors of espresso and dark cherry come forward, and the beer itself bounces back and forth from bitter to sweet tones.
  • Modern Times Black House Nitro – If you’re looking for a beer that brings out intense coffee and coconut flavors, Modern Times Black House Nitro beer is definitely one to try. Technically, this beer is considered an oatmeal stout, but you’ll find that the flavors offered in this brew almost place it into its own category. Every sip of this rich and smooth beer is packed with intense flavors of coffee, chocolate, coconut, and roasted flavors that only seem to be enhanced by the nitrogen.
  • Ballast Point Red Velvet Nitro Oatmeal Stout – Just the name of this oatmeal stout nitro beer stirs up visions of a smooth and creamy beverage. If you’re looking for a great dessert beer with none of the sweetness, Ballast Point’s Red Velvet Nitro Oatmeal Stout is it. This beer brings forth sumptuous chocolate and rich earth tones, delivered via an incredibly smooth texture.
  • Samuel Adams Nitro White Ale – The Nitro White Ale by Samuel Adams is unique when compared with many other nitro beers. This beer offers a certain lightness and crispness to it that’s not often found with nitro beers. Flavors and aromas of spice and orange are well-balanced and found throughout the soft and creamy body of this nitro beer. Summer stout drinkers will most likely appreciate this offering.
  • Left Hand Wake Up Dead Nitro – Dried fruit, licorice, and cocoa flavors burst forth with this smooth nitro beer. The Wake Up Dead Nitro by Left Hand Brewing Company is done in the Russian Imperial Stout style, which offers the perfect medium for delivering this bold yet smooth and creamy beer. Eight different malts are used to construct this satisfyingly rich nitro beer.
  • 3 Sheeps Cashmere Hammer – Just the name of this beer is enticing – Cashmere Hammer. This nitro stout is probably one of the creamiest and smoothest beers you’ll ever enjoy. Not to mention, the chocolate and earthy spices featured in this brew are perfectly balanced.
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