Beer, Wine & Spirits

Beer's new frontier: Nitro


Beer drinkers might be hearing a lot hissing in the coming year.

As brewers big and small continue to search for new frontiers in the quest to satisfy beer drinkers often looking for the next new thing, you can expect more brewers to hop aboard the nitro beer train.

Source: Jim Galligan

While most beers rely on carbon dioxide for fizz and flavor, nitro beer is infused with nitrogen gas, which results in smaller bubbles and a smoother, creamier beer.

"Changing from carbon dioxide to nitrogen is absolutely transformative," said Jim Koch, founder of Samuel Adams beer and chairman of Boston Beer Company. "The two will give you different flavors. It is a much more dramatic change in flavor than changing the hop variety."

Nitro beer is typically found on tap, due to the challenge and complexity in bottling or canning nitrogenated beers.

Many beer drinkers are already familiar with cans and bottles using plastic nitro widgets, thanks to the Diageo-owned Guinness brand and its iconic stout. That uses nitrogen-filled widgets to release the gas when the beer is opened, resulting in a "hiss."

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Nitrogenated beer will get further exposure when Samuel Adams unveils a new line of nitro beers in early 2016.

The brewery will release a white ale available on draft only as well as an IPA and a coffee stout, which will be released in cans using nitro widgets. All three beers will begin national distribution in February.

The brewery experimented with nearly 100 different recipes before narrowing it down to the final three, and invested heavily in the infrastructure needed to support the new nitro line, Koch said.

"We've had to put several million dollars of special equipment in just to fill these widget cans properly," he said. "We spent two years and a couple million dollars to put in the changes to the canning line to do it right."

Guinness unveiled its first-generation widget can in 1989, in an effort to give beer drinkers at home the same creamy head that they'd come to expect on draft in a pub.

But as sales have slowed in the face of an abundance of consumer options, Guinness has been branching out beyond stout. To that end, Guinness released a Guinness Nitro IPA last month.

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While Guinness Nitro IPA and the forthcoming Samuel Adams nitro line will bring more attention to the style, smaller craft brewers have already found success with it.

Longmont, Colorado-based Left Hand Brewing unveiled a nitro milk stout in 2011, the first American craft brewer to bottle a nitrogren beer.

In a craft beer landscape currently dominated by IPAs, Left Hand's Milk Stout has been the beer that has set the brewery apart from the crowd.

"It is our number one line for sure," said Chris Lennert, chief operating officer of Left Hand Brewing. "When you ask a lot of brewers what is their flagship beer, most are going to tell you an IPA or a Pale Ale. Ours is a stout and that catches people off guard."

In the wake of the success of Milk Stout Nitro, Left Hand has expanded its nitro line with Sawtooth Nitro American Ale, and Wake Up The Dead Imperial Stout Nitro.

Left Hand also holds an annual Nitro Fest, an all-nitro beer festival that brings together other brewers with nitro beers, including Oskar Blues Brewing and its Old Chub Scotch Ale in nitro cans.

'We don't talk about nitro'

Nitro Guinness IPA
Source: Guinness

"We're the number one selling craft nitro stout in America right now," said Lennert. "We've opened a lot of people's eyes to what nitro beers can do. Having Sam Adams and others come into the category only brings more attention to it."

While Boston Beer spent millions to research and develop its widget canning line, Left Hand does not rely on widgets to infuse its beers. The nitrogen is released with a hard pour from the bottle.

But don't ask Left Hand employees anything more about how the process works.

"Just like in the movie Fight Club, the number one rule of nitro is we don't talk about nitro," Lennert joked. "We'll help anyone out with anything, except that. We spent a couple years and a couple hundred thousand dollars to figure it out and it's not an easy process."

While Koch doesn't expect the new nitro line to be a high volume category, he expects store owners will be willing to make space for something a little different on already crowded shelves.

"I think what retailers will tell you is maybe we don't need one more IPA or one more Hefeweizen. There's a lot of styles that are heavily duplicated," he said. "So our feeling was that to really deserve more shelf space we need to do something special and unique. When they have zero nitro craft, then they might be willing to put in two or three."

Koch said he hopes the exposure Samuel Adams will bring to the category will encourage more craft brewers to begin to experiment with the style.

"To me it's the new frontier in the brewer's art" he said. "I hope it will lead to other craft brewers beginning to explore these as well."