Nitro beers are having a moment.
Walk into a beer bar or look on shelves and you’re likely to see a nitrogenated beer on offer from American brewers, a shift after the space was long dominated by one particular Irish brewery.
Last autumn, the Boston Beer Co., maker of Samuel Adams, announced that it would join the nitro category. This week in New York City, Jim Koch—the founder of the company—unveiled the first three beers in the Nitro Project lineup: Nitro White Ale, Nitro IPA and Nitro Coffee Stout.
As I’ve written before, nitro is a reference to the type of gas used in the carbonation process. It means the difference between the creamier nitrogen beers (N2) and their lively, pricklyCO2 counterparts. A typical nitrogenated beer contains about 70 percent nitrogen and 30 percent carbon dioxide. Nitrogen is largely insoluble in liquid, which is what contributes to the thick mouthfeel. This effect is helped by a special piece of tap equipment known as a restrictor plate that forces the beer through tiny holes before it lands in the glass. That process causes the rising effect that is topped with the head. And it’s really only the bubbles on the sides of the glass that fall. Inside they are actually rising, as typically seen with a poured carbonated beverage.
Koch calls the look of the pour “drama” and “wonderful theater” and this isn’t the first time Samuel Adams has released a nitro beer.
According to Koch, the brewery released a cream stout and a brown ale in nitrogenated form in the early 1990s, and then several years ago released Sam Stout on nitro draft in select markets. With this new lineup, however, the brewery spent more than two years in development and preparation for a widespread release.
“We didn’t want to replicate the Irish dry stout,” Koch told me. The brewery wanted to create beers of its own and styles that would respond well to the nitro treatment.
“We put some equipment into the brewery in Boston to do an in-line transformation of beers, where we take a keg, degas theCO2 and then nitrogenated it. We played with over 100 different beers,” he said noting that some worked and others did not. The brewery’s flagship, Boston Lager, when it receives the nitro treatment “blows up the flavor profile in a bad way,” he said.
Finally the brewery went with the three recipes that were best improved by nitrogen.
The lineup is available in 16-ounce cans that actually hold 15-ounces of liquid (reserving room for the nitro widget at the bottom of the can) and are available in cardboard wrapped four-packs that follow a recent trend by brewers using two prominent words on the packaging that quickly describe the beer and grab customer attention. The coffee stout is “Dark and Inviting” while the IPA is “Bright and Citrusy” and the white ale is “Creamy and Smooth.”
Do the beers live up to those descriptions? Here are the reviews:
Samuel Adams Nitro White Ale
5.5% | White Ale
A first whiff of metal quickly yields to orange peel and then juicy orange blossom. With a slight spicy bite from the coriander, the golden, almost orange colored ale has a gulpable quality thanks to the nitrogen and is smooth with a wheat softness and refreshing. Pair with mussels for a complete meal.
Samuel Adams Nitro IPA
7.5% | IPA
With six different hops and built to be 100 IBUs, the nitro downplays the assertive lupulin flavor leaving this more like a pale ale. Still, bursting with grapefruit and pine aromas, it has the dank quality often associated with West Coast IPAs. The bitterness doesn’t last long on the tongue and would likely act as a soothing companion to a dish like Nashville hot chicken.
Samuel Adams Nitro Coffee Stout
5.8% | Coffee Stout
Pours like a milkshake and releases hearty mocha aromas into the air, it mercifully lacks the acidity often associated with coffee. Instead it is pleasing like freshly ground beans, a hint of vanilla, ripened dark red stone fruit, and finishes with sweet roasted chocolate. This is all the dessert you need.
Each can opens with a woosh and a gurgle as the nitrogen is released from the widget into the beer and should immediately be poured hard into a glass. Currently the Nitro White Ale is the only beer available on draft, and as it has done in the past with other styles, the brewery released a special glass for its nitro beers, with a big dimple towards the top to capture and highlight the cascading effect, with a the lip turned outwards, to help the drinker pull the beer through the foam without spilling.
John Holl is the editor of All About Beer Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @John_Holl.
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