In the dark of the nitro

Siobhan Buchanan slips into the velvety smooth world of nitro beers

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Even if you’ve never heard of ‘nitro’ beer, you’ve definitely encountered it - the best known nitrogenised beer out there is Guinness, and it’s the addition of nitro gas to the usual CO2 that’s responsible for the smooth drinkability and the silky, dense head on your pint of the black stuff. 

A nitro beer is largely brewed the same way as any other beer; the main difference is the texture and overall drinking experience. These beers are packaged with 70% nitrogen and 30% carbon dioxide. Nitrogen bubbles are much smaller than CO2 bubbles, so give your beer a much smoother, creamier mouthfeel, and really condense the flavours and aromas of the beer. CO2 on the other hand, whether produced directly thanks to the gasses released during fermentation or pumped in during the bottling, canning, or packaging process, produces much more prickly, effervescent and lively bubbles, which release more aroma and generally make a beer more refreshing. With hoppy beers, carbonation allows the subtleties of hops and adjuncts to shine. But for maltier styles like stouts and rich red ales, the nitro gas makes the beer even more of a beautiful drinking experience. 

Nitro beer is still a bit of a niche trend in the craft beer world, despite the first draught nitro beer being released by Guinness way back in 1959. Left Hand in Colorado was one of the first craft breweries to release a nitro beer to the masses merely ten years ago, when it launched its Nitro Milk Stout to great acclaim. Adding nitrogen to beers is slowly gaining more traction here in the UK though, as brewers (and drinkers) strive to find that perfect sip of beer. 

Danny Oliver at Brew Toon in Peterhead in the north of Scotland, explains that its brewers' decision to nitrogenise beer was born from wanting a challenge: “We had noticed that nitro beers weren't really a big part of the craft beer landscape, especially in bottles. Forever looking to add another string to our bow, we set ourselves the goal to produce Scotland's first, bottled nitro beer. So, Dark Nite vanilla milk stout was born... a beer that has the initial aroma of vanilla, followed by rich chocolate and coffee. To taste, you again get that hit of vanilla, chocolate and coffee, which is rounded off by the creaminess produced by using lactose – we find that really compliments the velvety mouthfeel brought out by the nitro.”

It’s a gas

For Irish brewery The White Hag, nitro beers are something more than just experimentation, thanks to Guinness’ legacy. Bob Coggins, commercial director, comments: “As we've traveled, we have noticed that nitro draught stout has been something that we as a country are measured against. The White Hag has made a name for itself using ancient styles of beer, like its Heather Ale and Puca, and as such that dedication to tradition has extended to creating our version of the classic mid-ABV nitro stout.” After all, you can’t help but think of Guinness’ smooth richness when you think ‘Irish Stout’. 

Remember the ‘widgets’ you used to get in cans of Guinness? These are used to help keep the nitrogen in check, and the pressure created in the can shoots out when opened to give that pub-type dense pour at home. O’Hara’s Brewery in County Carlow, Ireland, still use this old-school tried-and-tested method. Seamus O’Hara, founder of the brewery, explains: “We’ve recently installed a new canning line that gives us a lot of flexibility on formats, including filling widgeted cans, which we think is essential for the full Irish Stout experience.” 

This ‘full experience’ is important for Seamus, as it means that customers can enjoy a glass of beer at home which is as similar as possible to the beer they would be drinking in a pub, including the wait for the head to settle! He adds: “We have a lot of experience with nitro products in keg (i.e. our Irish Stout and Irish Red) and we’re delighted with the quality of the nitro stout cans.” 

Conversely, many brewers have been attempting to ‘hack’ the chemistry of getting nitrogen into their beer without using widgets, by dosing the beer and/or the packaging with liquid nitrogen. This does however rely on drinkers using the ‘hard pour’ method in order to get the best drinking experience. This is a very specific way of pouring a nitro beer, which asks you to forget everything you’ve been taught about gently pouring your beer at an angle into your glass - you must first invert the can or bottle a few times (but don’t shake it!) to get the bubbles flowing, let it sit for a few seconds, then crack it open and angle at 180 degrees so the beer pours aggressively into your glass. Let the beer rest and the velvety, luscious head form, and voila! The perfect nitro beer, right in your hands. 

The benefits of nitrogen abound in certain beers, not just mouthfeel-wise. Andy Nowlan, marketing manager at Siren Craft Brew in Berkshire, explains how the nitrogen gas actually enhances some of Siren’s beers: "We've found our nitro beers to be smoother, thicker, with creamier mouthfeels, and big flavours”. 

He notes that there is possibly a trade off in the nuances of the flavour and aroma in favour of a more rich drink, but the drinkability is worth it: “Adding nitro to Broken Dream breakfast stout in particular, it takes some of the key notes and amplifies them, so you get a really nice hit of coffee and chocolate. One thing I've found interesting is that Hard Pour Broken Dream actually reminds me of drinking the beer on cask in my favourite pub – it has comforting rounded flavours without any 'prickly' carbonation.”

So what’s the difference?

Stuart Cail, master brewer at Harviestoun in Alva, Scotland, explains that generally stouts and porters do seem to benefit from nitrogenation rather than carbonation. Of the decision to add a nitrogenised version of the classic Old Engine Oil stout to Harviestoun’s repertoire, Stuart says: “We are not the first to employ this technique, but we are happy to follow the trend as there is good reason. The nitro Old Engine Oil has the same recipe as the carbonated version, yet it tastes different - this is interesting. The smaller bubbles, in combination with the more viscous nature of stouts from the gluten content (for example from the oats) gives the beer a fuller body. The smoother more full mouthfeel from the nitro helps the roasty and coffee-like flavours from the roasted barley come through. Old Engine Oil is a complex beer with many layers of flavours, and delivering these in different ways helps add to its complexity.” 

Andy from Siren adds: “We don't think it needs to be a debate over which is 'better', carbonation vs nitro, but love to spark conversation over the impacts on individual beers. We've now produced four beers where we've released nitro and carbonated versions of the same recipe. Twin Flames Red IPA and Maltiverse Micro Porter were released in packs containing both, so the customer could gauge the difference and feed back opinions. Interestingly, the red IPA split the crowd on preference, with some people liking the drinkability of the nitro and others missing the vibrant pop of carbonation.” 

What’s next for craft nitro beers? 

Danny at Brew Toon says: “To be honest, we were chuffed with the finished version of Dark Nite, so we went on to develop an additional three nitro beers: Raspberry Ripple, a raspberry ice-cream nitro ale, New England Nitro, a nitro NEIPA we brewed with our pals at BrewDog Peterhead for Collabfest 2020, and then Breach of the Peach, a peach milkshake nitro IPA.”

Bob from The White Hag says they plan to keep experimenting: “Nitro adds a familiar smoothness and texture, and a sense of theatre that is hard to match in any other style of beer. We are going to explore bringing that nitro to a few other beers in the range, to extend that texture and theatre to more flavours and styles.” 

At Siren, Andy explains that they have big plans for the future: “We've got lots of ideas of where this may go next, including a special edition of Pompelmocello, a grapefruit sour IPA with lactose. With nitro, we can see this having some really cool sorbet/smoothie vibes.” 

Sign me up! 


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