One of the reasons we love craft beer is that it’s not afraid to try new things. Unlike its conservative cousins of the brands-you’ll-see-during-the-Super-Bowl-commercials variety, craft beers jump right up to the line of insanity and dare each other to push their toes over.
An increasingly common theme among craft brewing is to turn their already delicious stouts, porters, etc. into nitro brews. A nitro beer is the heavier, smoother version of other beers.
Nitrogen isn’t just for quirky craft beers, however. Guinness, Ireland’s famous dry-stout, is well known for mixing its CO2 with some N2 to create delicious flavor and mouthfeel.
Unlike regular beer, which is carbonated with carbon dioxide, nitro beers are pressurized with a mix of nitrogen and CO2 (usually a 70 percent to 30 percent ratio, respectively). Hence the name. There’s just something about that name, too. Nitro. It sounds sexy. Dangerous.
At the bar, you can tell which are the nitro brews by their tap. The nitro tap faucet will be longer, and inside a tap restrictor plate forces the brew through tiny holes. Nitros are poured differently than regular beer styles, and typically end with a larger, thicker head that cascades into the glass.
“It does take longer to pour,” said Jimmy Walker, brewmaster with the Breckenridge Brewery. “So most people, when they order a nitro beer, they’re going to have to wait. But it’s worth the wait.”
Breckenridge recently added a new nitro to its repertoire — the Nitro Vanilla Porter (NVP), which is the nitrogenated version of its popular vanilla porter.
“Imagine a vanilla chocolate shake,” said Walker, when asked to describe the NVP.
Heavier, maltier beers such as stouts and porters tend to be nitrogenated more than lighter beers like pale ales, most likely because the nitrogen thickens the beer and creates a creamy head, which are already characteristics of the darker beers.
“Usually nitrogen beers are served a bit warmer,” Walker added. “You don’t want your Guinness served ice cold. I think (with) darker beers, the flavor comes out more, and I think the creaminess (of nitro) goes well with roasty malts.”
That said, you can certainly find beers that aren’t stouts and porters that have been given nitro makeovers. Because craft brewers love to experiment and push the limits.
In Colorado, Longmont’s Left Hand Brewing Company is known for its nitro beer, particularly the Milk Stout Nitro. Recently, it released nitro versions of two other beers — the Sawtooth Ale and the Russian Imperial Stout. I took home a bottle of each, in the name of science, research and beer, to see how they measured up.
Sawtooth Nitro — Left Hand Brewing Co.
As an American style ESB (extra special/strong bitter), the Sawtooth isn’t exactly the typical beer that might be chosen for nitrogenation. But Left Hand did it anyway and the result is a rather unique experience.
The Sawtooth nitro tastes, basically, like an ale that’s all grown up. The nitrogen smoothes out the taste, and increases the nutty malt flavors. But the hops are still there, jumping out to remind you that this is an ale, after all.
The Sawtooth nitro is the ale with its peach fuzz grown out into a full beard, that’s working its first job and starting to go out on dates. Definitely a must-try.
Wake Up Dead Nitro — Left Hand Brewing Co.
A nitro version of a 10 percent alcohol by volume Russian Imperial Stout, Wake Up Dead is exactly how you’ll feel if you let your eyes get the better of your stomach and keep ordering more. Drunk responsibly, however, the Wake Up Dead nitro will provide a satisfying experience. The nitro fleshes out its already full body, leaving a deliciously heavy mouthfeel, subtly twining with flavors of fruit, cocoa and licorice.
Nitro on tap
In Breckenridge, Mexican restaurant Rita’s has been adding to its beer selection, and offers a rotating nitro on tap. This week, the offering is a nitro version of Odell Brewing Company’s 5 Barrel Pale Ale, a good chance to see how the nitrogenation process affects a non-malty brew.