What Is Nitro Beer?

You’ve heard of nitro coffee, but have you tried nitro beer? Nitro beer has actually been around since the 1950s, but its popularity has increased with the ability of some innovative microbrewers’ bottling techniques. 

Nitro beer has a lot to offer in terms of different mouthfeel and texture than you’ll experience with other beers, and it’s all because of science. Get ready to revisit middle school chemistry class as we talk about what puts the nitro in nitro beer. 

Carbonation 101

If your palate is particularly sensitive to the conditioning of a beer (the carbonation in layman’s terms), you’ll be familiar with how to describe a beer based on the amount and size of the bubbles it contains. 

Soft, spritzy, effervescent, sparkly, gentle, and zippy might be words you regularly use to describe the way a beer fizzes on your tongue and hits the back of your throat upon drinking. For the rest of us, we just know we like the fizz, but too much fizz can make a beer too filling, which we don’t like. 

Beer normally gets carbonated in one of two ways: natural carbonation or forced carbonation. Here’s how both work. 

Natural Carbonation

Natural carbonation happens (you guessed it) naturally. Beer is made by a process of mashing and extracting grains so that they malt. To malt the grains, they are cracked and placed into boiling water, where they release sugars and other chemicals. 

Once they malt, the grains are removed from the liquid, and the remaining liquid (which is essentially sugary water) is boiled. This is called the wort. 

Once the wort has boiled as long as the brewer wants, the yeast is added to begin the fermentation process. During fermentation, yeast reacts with the sugars that have been released by the grains. The fermentation process produces ethyl alcohol and carbonation. 

Forced Carbonation

Even though natural carbonation accounts for some of the carbonation in your favorite ales and lagers, it’s not usually the sole source of carbonation, usually because it just doesn’t produce enough carbon dioxide to make your beer as fizzy as you want. If you’ve ever made kombucha at home, you know that it eventually develops a little fizz, but not much. 

Enter forced carbonation, a method of adding additional Co2 to your brew during the bottling and canning process. This helps carbonate the beer and seals it under pressure, so you get a refreshing, bubbly beverage upon opening. 

Virtually all beers are carbonated through this two-step process. The exceptions are nitro beers and cask ales. 

Nitrogen and Beer: A Beautiful Marriage

Nitrogen is another liquid that can be used to carbonate beer, and it’s used to create a beer that has a completely different feel and texture. It gives beer a full and velvety mouthfeel that can be likened to cream.

Nitrogen liquid turns to fizzy gas when it is placed under pressure. Pump the beer full of nitrogen, seal it under pressure, and boom, your beer should be fully carbonated with nitrogen instead of carbon dioxide… only it’s not that simple. 

Nitrogen particles are smaller and more gentle than Co2 particles, which means if a brewer only used nitrogen to carbonate the beer, it likely wouldn’t reach the level of carbonation the brewer wanted. 

Who Figured This Out?

Using nitrogen to infuse and carbonate beer was the brainchild of Michael Ash, a mathematician turned beer brewer who was originally hired by the Guinness company in Dublin, Ireland. In the 1950s, Guinness was having difficulty getting their brew to flow properly from a tap. 

Ash created a solution for this problem by using nitrogen to carbonate the beer and forcing it through a metal plate on the tap filled with tiny holes. This allowed the beer to pour with less fizz, giving it a thicker and richer taste and feel. 

Surge and Settle

You can’t mention Michael Ash without mentioning the surge and settle method for which he is so famous. As the father of nitro beer, he invented a pouring technique still used in pubs and bars (and homes) everywhere today. If you’re a Guinness purist, this is old news to you. 

The surge and settle method involves pouring beer from the tap into a glass at a 45-degree angle, waiting for the cascading bubbles to settle, and then tilting the glass upright to fill the remainder of the glass. This pouring method creates a thick, beautiful beer with a rich, frothy head. 

Is Nitro Beer Just Draft Beer?

For a long time, you could only get a nitro beer (which wasn’t actually called nitro beer) on tap. There was simply no way to properly bottle or can a nitrogen-infused beer because it essentially poured flat. 

If you combined Co2 and nitrogen in a bottle or can, the carbon dioxide absorbed into the beer, and again, the beer poured flat and headless. As you can imagine, there were many attempts to get the process to work, but they fell flat (pun intended).

That was until Guinness again revolutionized the way we drink our beer.  Hailed as one of the best inventions of the past 40 years, the beer widget was Guinness’s solution for canning their nitrogen-infused brews so that they poured the same at home as they do at the pub. 

How the Beer Widget Works

Look, there are a lot of moving parts with this one, and at the risk of making your head spin, this is a very abbreviated look at how it works. The widget is a small, round, nitrogen-filled ball with a hole. It is plopped in a beer can, and a shot of nitrogen is added before sealing the beer in the can under pressure. 

While sealed, beer gradually enters a hole in the widget and is infused with the nitrogen inside. When the beer is opened, the pressure drops. Beer and nitrogen rush out of the widget and cause the carbon dioxide to be released from the beer, allowing the beer to pour smooth, thick, and with a definable head. 

Enough About Guinness

Although Guinness is the O.G. of nitro beers, they aren’t necessarily the brand that made nitro beers famous. Craft brewers, through passion, ingenuity, and pure magic, have developed other methods of getting a nitrogen-infused beer to pour from a bottle or can effortlessly without the use of a widget. 

What Does a Nitro Beer Taste Like?

We’ve focused mostly on mouthfeel and texture, and by now, you’re undoubtedly wondering what these beers actually taste like. Most often, you’ll find that nitros are either porters, stouts, or other very dark ales. That’s because nitrogen works best with grain, not hops. 

This is why you’ll be hard-pressed to find a nitro IPA. The thought is that adding nitrogen to a beer that is meant to be crisp, citrusy, and hop-forward causes those attributes to fade. Remember, nitrogen doesn’t actually affect the taste. It affects feel. Malty, vanilla, caramel, and espresso flavors naturally lend themselves to thicker, richer textures. 

Citrus, bitterness, and pine flavors (notable flavors you’d find in an IPA) pair better with higher levels of carbonation and lighter-bodied grains. 

Nitros To Try

If you’ve never had a Guinness, stop what you’re doing, go to the closest bar, and ask for a Guinness on tap. Seriously. We’ll wait for you to get home. 

Now that you’ve checked that box, you’re officially ready to start sampling other nitro beers. 

The selection of craft nitro beers is rapidly growing, so keep your browser locked on TapRm to make sure you get a shot at sampling the latest and greatest creations from brewmasters all over the country. 

In the meantime, check out our staff picks, an ever-evolving collection of favorites hand-selected by our beer-obsessed employees. Nitro beers are on regular rotation in the collection and are usually only available for a limited amount of time. 

Tap Into Better Beer

You know you love great beer, and the best way to get your hands on the very best beer is through TapRm. We make it easy for the nation’s best and most passionate microbreweries to get their beer into the nation’s most obsessed beer drinkers. 

TapRm makes it accessible for you to get “locals only” nitro brews shipped right to your front door, even if the brewery you buy from is thousands of miles away. By building a better beer infrastructure, we’re helping support small breweries and beer fanatics nationwide. 

For the best, creamiest, frothiest nitro brews you can handle, check out TapRm’s ever-changing lineup. Until then, cheers to amazing beer!

 

Sources:

Widget tops invention list | London Evening Standard 

A little science and history behind putting nitrogen in beer | Lancaster Online.com 

Honoring Michael Ash, the Man that Invented Guinness Draught | BREWPUBLIC.com

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