The perfect nitro pour is performance art: pour, wait, repeat. Tiny nitrogen bubbles race to the surface, creating a velvety blanket of foam that rivals any #bosspour.
Once relegated to pints poured in a pub — and usually pints of Guinness — nitro beer is making its way onto more off-premise shelves than ever before. Thanks to pioneering techniques by craft breweries like Colorado’s Left Hand Brewing, to more recent innovations from the likes of Modern Times and even Budweiser, the nitrogenized pint is now an affordable luxury to enjoy at home.
With advancements in brewing and packaging technology leading to a more accessible canned or bottled nitro beer, brewing companies are exploring how nitrogen gas plays with a variety of beer styles beyond stout. Nitrogen has been known to play well with amber ales, IPAs, and even fruit beers.
What Is Nitrogen?
No longer just a square on the periodic table, nitrogen, when used in beer, lends a creamy element to the flavor. With a “nitro” beer, a combination of 70 percent nitrogen and 30 percent carbon dioxide (CO2) generates the smooth carbonation and a cascading effect not found in beers that rely strictly on carbon dioxide. That cascade comes from the way the nitrogen bubbles fall around the glass then shoot up through the middle, leaving a fluffy, white cushion of head at the top.
Nitro’s New Wave
The popularity of nitrogenated beer has been bubbling up slowly, taking time as brewers took time to trial technologies and techniques to get it right. Introducing nitrogen into a beer is a fine and delicate science. That’s especially true when it comes to allowing drinkers to take nitro home.
Of course, the packaged pint “on nitro” began at the hands of Guinness, which first started pouring Irish dry stout with nitrogen in 1959.
Guinness spent almost 20 years figuring out how to put Guinness Draught in a bottle with anything even remotely similar to the nitro experience at a pub. The bottle held something called a creamer which released nitrogen into the beer.
“Ultimately, it didn’t quite give us the desired effect, and the creamer was a bit cumbersome to use,” says Eoghain Clavin, national Guinness brewery ambassador. “The brewers went back to the drawing board and after more years of trial, we developed the widget, which was released in 1988.” The widget, a nitrogen-filled capsule that gassed up the stout as soon as the can or bottle was opened, actually earned Guinness the Queen’s Award for Technological Achievement in 1991. It beat out the internet.
Left Hand explored the same challenges when it first attempted bottling Milk Stout Nitro in 2011. “It was a lot of internal [research and development] and trying to reverse-engineer it,” says Jeff Joslin, director of brewing operations. The brewery eventually landed on bottling the beer without a contraption like Guinness’s “widget” but instead relying on physics. That meant the drinker needed to “hard pour” the stout out of the bottle to activate the nitrogen.
A hard pour is counterintuitive to how most people pour a beer. It requires someone to hold the bottle at a high 45-degree angle to the glass, allowing the beer to gush out. At about the halfway point, the angle shifts to 90 degrees, completely perpendicular to the bottom of the glass. The rush of beer helps mix the gas and activate the cascade.
As Craft Brewers Catch On, Tech Catches Up
In 2014, Left Hand launched a Nitro Fest, inviting breweries from all over the country to pour nitro beers alongside circus shows. Even Dogfish Head Brewing, a brewery not known for nitrogenated beer, crafted small- batch brews to bring it to the festival all the way from its home in Rehoboth Beach, Del. (Although the 2020 event has been cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic, Left Hand hopes to bring it back in late 2021.)
Last October, Left Hand released a mixed 8-pack featuring all nitro beers: the year-round Milk Stout Nitro, Flamingo Dreams Nitro (a berry blonde ale), and Sawtooth Nitro (an amber ale), along with a rotating seasonal. (The seasonal for summer is Gettin’ Tiki With It Nitro, a Piña Colada wheat beer). The brewery has continued to invest in nitro with the new release of Galactic Cowboy, a modern nitro imperial stout in cans and on draft.
Modern Times, which roasts its own coffee, produces and cans a nitro cold brew coffee, also called Black House. In 2016, Modern Times canned its popular Black House, an oatmeal coffee stout, with nitro. Andrew Schwartz, Modern Times’ commissioner of flavor, explains that they’d wanted to can the beer since they first started serving it on nitro in 2014 — but needed to figure out how.
“We do it by pressurizing the tank with nitrogen, and we also dose the cans with liquid nitrogen,” Schwartz says. When the brewery acquired a new canning line four years ago, it was built with the capability to inject nitrogen into the cans as they were filled. Several other canned nitro beers followed, including an upcoming version of Nitro Black House, a coffee beer brewed with vanilla known as the Vanilla Latte Edition.
“I think a hat tip should be given to the coffee industry for their recent use of nitrogen in cold coffees,” says Clavin. “In doing so, they helped grow consumers’ perceptions about what nitro beverages can be and as consumers have become more familiar with it. I think it’s given brewers more flexibility to experiment with it in their beers and more initiative to launch those beers to a wide audience.”
Just last year, Rhinegeist Brewery of Cincinnati released its first-ever canned nitro beer: a gose with peach, vanilla, and lactose called Cobbstopper. By that time, the technology — similar to what Modern Times was using — had become more accessible.
“Cross flow membrane technology and liquid nitrogen dosers came on the scene at a cost craft brewers could handle,” says Cole Hackbarth, Rhinegeist’s director of brewery operations. “We added a liquid nitrogen doser to our can line that allowed us to can nitro without specialty cans.”
Finally, in early March 2020, the largest brewery in the world, Budweiser, introduced its own nitro lager: Budweiser Nitro Gold.
Bigger Brands, More Exposure
The draw to nitro was clear for Budweiser: “Nitro is a huge trend in the beverage industry,” says Ricardo Marques, VP marketing, core and value brands, at Anheuser-Busch. “As we see double-digit growth in the nitrogen category, we saw an opportunity with our consumer base, offering them a premium product for their ever-changing palate.”
Budweiser also took a cue from coffee. “Nitro is a huge trend in the beverage industry — Starbucks just launched a [ready-to-drink] nitro brew coffee,” says Marques.
By the time Budweiser dropped Nitro Gold, it wasn’t that much of a surprise that the brewery had taken its first foray into nitro with a lager. Since other breweries have already made gains in delivering nitro styles, it had been proven that the gas could complement a golden lager. The can designed by Budweiser also requires the ritual of the “hard pour,” which the brand has promoted via marketing efforts and with a tutorial video.
“In Nitro Gold, the one-of-a-kind golden lager is brewed with caramel malt for a bold flavor, and the smaller, denser bubbles create a silky-smooth finish,” says Marques. “We know our drinkers are seeking premium innovations for special occasions, which is why Nitro Gold is such an exciting new innovation for us.”
Hard Pour, Easy Enjoyment
Nitrogenated beers still occupy a pretty small niche with beer drinkers. But with global brands like Budweiser promoting packaged nitro offerings, beer drinkers who “haven’t been exposed to [nitro] yet or don’t necessarily understand the difference” between nitro beers and normal carbonated beers will soon be exposed, Ingram says. “It definitely raises awareness and allows people to experience it.”
According to Joslin, brewers are having fun working with nitro, too. “I think other breweries have realized that it’s an ingredient that they can play with,” he says. “And so they can make a beer more approachable.”
As for the pour? “First, grab a cold can and a clean glass,” Clavin says. “Crack that can, listen to the widget do its job agitating the nitrogen, and pour it straightaway into the glass at a 45-degree angle. Give it time to settle, then you’re good to go.”