Nitro Beer Explained – Beer history & Science

We truly live in the Golden Age of beer. Never before in human history have there been more brewers cranking out more great beers using a crazy variety of ingredients and brewing techniques. Whether is pushing the haze craze into the stratosphere or creating delicious barrel-aged sours. It seems that nothing is holding brewers back in terms of challenging the traditional brewing methods and ingredients.

But one innovation from 60 years ago is still winning the minds and hearts of drinkers everywhere even in the modern era of craft beer innovation. To learn more about modern era brewing check our What are the Strongest Beers out there?

How it all started

A glass of nitro beer.
Credit: https://renegadebrewing.com/nitro-beer/

For thousands of years ago, there was only one gas that to hang out in the beer. And that was the good old carbon dioxide. While carbon dioxide is a perfectly good and natural gas brewers in the 1950s and 60s were wondering if a great beer could be made with another gas. With the advent of metal kegs, the scene was set for the brewing gas revolution.

To understand the emergence of nitrogen and beer we have to run back the clock all the way to the 1950s. It was at this time brewers were adopting metal kegs at an alarming rate. It was easy to see why traditionally draught beer was delivered to pubs and saloons in wooden casks which contained live yeast and unfermented beer.

After a conditioning period for the yeast to do their work, the owner of the establishment would serve the beer either by gravity or at the use of a hand pump. As the beer exited the cask air would take its place. And the air is the enemy of fresh beer.

Oxidation happens

Nitrogenated beer compared to a glass of carbon dioxide beer.
Credit: https://www.generon.com/how-to-nitrogenate-beer/

Exposure to oxygen begins to break down all those chemicals that make beer so great. All that changed with the advent of metal kegs. Suddenly brewers had a serving vessel that could hold its contents under pressure. Meaning that a final filtered keg of beer could be sold to bars and pubs. So instead to air replacing beer in a keg, CO2 could be used to keep the beer fizzy and fresh for longer.

This was a revolution for draught beer. The consistency of flavor and texture of beer became much better. Metal kegs allowed you to use different gases to bubble your beer.

To make their 200th Anniversary in 1959 Guinness began marketing nitrogenated beer across UK and Ireland. They called their nitrogen serving system the easy service system and began a slow rollout of draught lines that quickly won popularity with Guinness fans. While it’s safe to say that Guinness didn’t invent nitrogen-aided beer. They were responsible for not only making it popular but for giving pubs and bars across the Western World access to nitro taps.

The difference between CO2 and nitrogen beer

Three steps on how to pour a single glass of nitrogen beer.
Credit: https://beerandbrewing.com/how-to-serve-beer-on-nitro/

The differences start immediately when the beer is poured as it has a distinctive texture and foam. The unique look is because nitrogen is 100 times less soluble in water than carbon dioxide. When combined with a special dispensing technology it produces a ton of bubbles in the beer.

In the case of nitro beer on draft, a restrictor plate is placed immediately prior to the faucet in the draught line. This plate has many small holes which create a big pressure differential and forces all the nitrogen to gas off at once in a flurry of small bubbles. they all rise to the glass more slowly than larger CO2 bubbles. The beer will settle down with an attractive-looking head. It lasts a lot longer than carbonated beers.

Nitrogen beers tend to have a very smooth mouthfeel. they have always been popular with craft brewers.

The only downside to nitrogen beer

Two cans of Guinness beer with a white plastic widget.
Credit: http://doctorale.com/en/guinness-widget-or-an-introduction-to-tasting-draught/

There seems to be one major hurdle that very few brewers are able to overcome. Producing nitrogen beers that come in cans and bottles requires a tremendous investment in complex science. It comes with making a self-contained nitrogen-aided vessel. While draft and bottles beers that rely on CO2 are very similar. Recreating the signature texture of nitrogen-aided beer out of a can or bottle is an incredibly scientific process.

Guinness uses a special widget in their cans and that took them a while to develop. As such, there is a lot of secrecy around how exactly it all works.

While many drinkers would say that many beers are improved through the use of nitro. There are some people who actually dislike the replacement of CO2. Nitrogen does create a great texture that enhances many beers. But that doesn’t mean that larger CO2 bubbles don’t have their benefits. they force more aromatic compounds to the surface of the beer. Allowing the drinker to get a great aroma of hops and malts that most nitrogen native beers are not able to provide.

In addition, nitro beers can lose some aspects of flavor and that’s why you don’t see a lot of IPAs on nitro. Most brewers use nitrogen to enhance already great products and with their creamy mouthfeel and distinctive look, they will be around the brewing world for many decades to come. Cheers.

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