Are nitro beers set to explode?

Many craft brewers have a bit of ‘mad scientist’ about them. Because craft beer is about experimentation and pushing into new (or rediscovering old) beer styles and constantly providing the novelty-seeking beer geeks like me with new tastes to explore.

And one of the latest mad science endeavours in Australian craft beer is nitro beers.

Nitro beers involve switching out some of the usual CO2 that carbonates a beer with around 70% nitrogen, creating a denser head and thicker body. Nitro beers are poured through a special tap or go through a specialised bottling or canning process.

Nitro adds another dimension to beers with the body and mouthfeel. Nitro tends to work better with maltier beers like stout and English style ales rather than hoppy pale ales and IPAs, with which it can dull the flavour a bit.

The creamy head of a nitro beer

Nitro beers are not new of course but there has been a monopoly on them. Guinness has long been the sole beer on nitro in pubs and they’ve also owned a patent on widget technology for nitro beer in a can.

Some craft brewers in the US however have started their own nitro beer movement. The likes of Left Hand, with their classic milk stout, Samuel Adams with a new nitro range, and Vault brewing have made headway.

Now nitro beers are starting to get some airplay in Australia too. Batch Brewing blew me away last winter with their Elsie Milk Stout on nitro and have experimented with different beers on nitro. Other beers on nitro seen this winter include the 4 Pines Stout, Red Hill Imperial Stout, Hightail Ale from Mountain Goat, and the Dog’s Bollocks Extra Special Bitter from Mornington Peninsula.

The latter beer was also an Australia first in that it was a widget-less nitro beer can. Mornington Peninsula called in help from Vault Brewing to develop the nitro beer can. This article explains in detail the challenges and process that Vault Brewing undertook to fill their beers in cans.

Those familiar with Guinness will find other nitro beers familiar in mouthfeel but substantially different in flavour. The Australian craft beers on nitro are tasty and excellent brews in their own right, that are enhanced by their nitrogenation, in a somewhat similar way to beers dispensed from a handpump (although colder).

On the other hand, I recently tried some cans of Guinness and while the creamy head was impressive, the beer was seriously lacking in body and flavour beyond that. It was not surprising at all to read that Guinness are said to use high gravity brewing, where they brew at a higher alcohol level and then water down the beer.

For those who do manage to get their hands on a nitro can of Dog’s Bollocks ESB from Mornington Peninsula. Here’s a handy video showing the very different way to pour a nitro beer.

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