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Nitro beers bubbling to the top, small bubbles

Nitro beers bubbling to the top, small bubbles

February 21, 2016| Categories: Beer Tasting, Events, News, Published Articles

As seen in the Burlington Free Press . http://www.burlingtonfreepress.com/story/life/food/2016/02/19/nitro-beers-bubbling-top-small-bubbles/80560082/

In my last column, I made a prediction that drinkers would see an increase in the number of craft beers that are served using nitrogen. As it turns out, I’m not the only beer writer who thinks this trend will blossom in 2016. When I received this month’s copy of All About Beer magazine the cover was dedicated to “The Rise of Nitro Beers.”

But not everyone is excited by the prospect. Josh Witkowski, a friend from my days working in the Boston beer scene, sent a few tweets my way from his account @blackbeered:

“Tens—if not twenties—of breweries all vying for that ONE Nitro tap that’s already dedicated to Guinness (or similar). SMH”

And he continued, “Just seems like a bad sales strategy. Walk into a beer bar with a product that can go on 1 (maybe 2) of the 20+ draft lines?”

He’s right in certain regards. Most bars don’t have the proper draught equipment to pour nitrogenated beers, and the ones that do typically only have one line dedicated to Nitro beers. Better craft beer bars are starting to add a second Nitro line, but it’s rare to see more than two, as Witkowski points out.

But with the proliferation of craft beer offerings and a limited number of beer taps in the market, brewers are finding ways to stand out from the crowd. What Witkowski sees as a negative, I view as an opportunity.

There’s only one or two Nitro lines in a bar, but how many brewers are competing for them? He postulates that it’s ten to 20 breweries. And if you look at the other ten draught lines in a given account, there’s literally thousands of beers competing for space. The field is a little thinner in the Nitro race, so getting your brand on tap might prove to be easier. Provided, of course, that the craft brand can convince the publican to remove the old stand-by Guinness to give their beer a chance.

Whether or not you think Nitro beers will have their heyday in 2016, you have to admit that the science behind the beer is pretty spectacular. Watching the tiny bubbles cascade downward in the glass before building a lasting creamy head is one of life’s little joys. In the interest of beer education, I’ve put together a little primer on nitrogenated beers.

Beers that are served on “Nitro” are packaged, whether in kegs, bottles or cans, with a blend of nitrogen (N2) and carbon dioxide (CO2), typically 70 percent (N2) to 30 percent (CO2). These beers are said to be “nitrogenated” instead of being “carbonated.”

Nitrogen is less soluble in beer than carbon dioxide, and produces smaller bubbles. When the beer is poured the nitrogen rapidly escapes, forming a thick, stable, creamy head. That creamy head will often outlast the beer, staying in the glass even after the drinker polishes off his or her pint.

Nick R. Jones writes in “The Oxford Companion to Beer:” “The almost imperceptibly small bubbles of N2 are much more persistent than larger CO2 bubbles…Nitrogen bubbles are more stable than CO2 bubbles, partially resulting from the fact that the surrounding air is mostly nitrogen as well.”

Traditional beers are carbonated because carbon dioxide is a byproduct of yeast fermentation. So who figured out all this business about nitrogen?

The technology for serving beers on Nitro was developed in the late 1950s by Guinness. They spent three years researching and developing a way to “duplicate the soft texture” of their original cask-conditioned stout, according to “The Oxford Companion to Beer.”

When bars serve beers on Nitro, they require special equipment. A special nitrogen-rich blend of gas is required to “push” the beer from keg to faucet. Bars often use a special tap faucet referred to as a “creamer faucet.” The spout of a creamer faucet contains a restrictor plate that is perforated and creates a pressure change in the beer, agitating the nitrogen gas out of suspension, and creating tiny bubbles. When the tap is opened, the beer hits the restrictor plate at high pressure, which forces it through tiny holes. Below the restrictor plate is an area of low pressure, so as the beer is forced through the gas wants to rapidly escape. (Thanks, physics!)

Recently craft brewers have been experimenting more and more with Nitro beers, expanding beyond the traditional Irish-style dry stouts. Nitro IPAs, Cream Ales, and Double Altbiers have all popped up. I haven’t seen a Nitro Lager yet, but I’m sure there’s one coming in 2016.

Have you had a Nitro beer that you’ve really enjoyed? Not a fan of the style? Let me know your thoughts about Nitro beers on Twitter: @aPhilosophyOf.

Jeff S. Baker II is the Curator of the Curriculum for Farrell Distributing. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram @aPhilosophyOf.