What Is Nitro Beer and Which Are the Best Nitrogen Beers to Drink Now?
If you were asked to pick a nitrogen beer out of a lineup without tasting it, all you’d have to do is look for the one with cascading bubbles and a pillowy white head. But there’s more to nitro beer than meets the eye.
What Is Nitro Beer?
Most beers you’ll find in liquor stores and on tap at your local brewery are carbonated—it’s what happens naturally during the fermentation phase of the brewing process. What makes nitrogenized beers (aka nitro beer) different is they're infused with nitrogen gas.
What Does Nitro Beer Taste Like?
While any style of beer can be made into a nitro beer, most breweries tend to favor richer, chocolatey, malt-heavy brews like porters and stouts to make the best nitro beers, as opposed to hop-forward ales. As for taste, nitro beers tend to have a smoother, creamier texture.
How Is Nitro Beer Made?
Up until the early 20th century, beer was served from wooden casks. Unlike the metal kegs of today, this beer was more gently carbonated with a rounded mouthfeel. Back in 1959, mathematician Michael Ash developed the “Easy Serve” system for Guinness that used nitrogen gas. It was a way to make keg beer resemble what had come out of wooden casks.
Using a tap with small holes, the high pressure of nitrogen pushing the beer through small holes in the tap resulted in the cascade effect Guinness is known for today. Yes, it can take longer to pour and settle, but Guinness lovers are willing to wait.
Where Can You Drink Nitro Beer?
It wasn’t all that long ago that you could only get nitrogen beer on tap. Again, it was Guinness that developed a plastic "widget” that was placed in cans and bottles. When the beer can is opened, pressurized gas and beer inside the widget escape, creating a chain reaction of bubbles and that sought-after cascade. Now, you don't have to go to a bar for a quality pour of the best beers.
How Do I Open a Nitro Beer?
You know the tricks to open a beer bottle without an opener, but nitro beers require a specific subset of instructions. Brewers suggest an aggressive pour, where you pour a bottle or can straight up to encourage the cascade. Then, sit back and enjoy the show.
Want to give nitrogen beer a try? Below, we’ve hand-picked some the best nitro beer you can enjoy at home.
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Nitrogen Beer: 10 Best Nitro Beers to Drink Now
You have to respect the original. Though nitro beers have only started appearing on shelves in earnest over the last few years, Guinness has made it possible to enjoy the cascading bubbles from home since 1969—first with its iconic Irish Stout and more recently with its IPA. Guinness uses a plastic widget (basically a nitrogen-filled ball that surges with bubbles when you crack the top) to emulate a draft pour. Hysterically, the widget won the Queen’s Award for Technological Achievement in 1991, beating out the Internet.
While Guinness may have invented adding nitrogen to beers, Left Hand Brewing in Colorado arguably did the most to popularize it. At any given time, the brewery has about six on offer, including Nitro Milk Stout, Galactic Cowboy Nitro Imperial Stout, Black Forest Nitro Cherry Chocolate Stout, and others. While they’re all good, we’re partial to Flamingo Dreams because of its uniqueness. Nitro beers often resemble boozy chocolate milk, but this berry-forward blonde ale is one-of-a-kind. Like Guinness, it uses a built-in widget to activate the bubbles.
Colorado’s Breckenridge Brewery has given its popular Vanilla Porter the nitro treatment. If you have a sweet tooth, this is a solid nitro offering to reach for. Notes of chocolate, roasted cashew, toffee, coffee, and vanilla are present. The brewery also offers a nice Nitro Irish Stout that's similar to a Guinness. Both are available year-round and are best served using the hard-pour approach.
Like a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup in a pint glass, this iteration is arguably an improvement on the (already wildly successful) original. Whereas other nitro beers can feel flat compared to the carbonated version, this nitro milk stout from Belching Beaver is just as rich, but it offers a far more velvety mouthfeel. To serve it, the brand recommends pouring the bottle straight down at a 90-degree angle.
Coffee and chocolate and cream, oh my! If you’re a mocha person this supremely drinkable treat from California-based AleSmith is for you. It’s decadent, but it won't weigh you down. Honestly, we’d be surprised if you didn’t reach for another.
Oregon’s venerable Rogue gave several of its most popular stouts the nitrogen treatment, including the smooth, oatmeal-steered Shakespeare Stout and Chocolate Stout. Dutch chocolate delivers deep cocoa complexity, while the nitrogen lends a lustrous creaminess. The effect is not unlike drinking boozy chocolate milk. Visit the brand's distributor finder to locate your nearest source.
BrewDog says its nitro oatmeal stout delivers “a red carpet of silky opulence.” Loaded up with lots of oatmeal, Jet Black Heart is filled with notes of cacao, roasted coffee, and dark berry fruits. The brewery promises it’ll “plunge you into the deep, dark, abyss.” We assume that’s a good thing.
Boddingtons traces its roots all the way back to Manchester, England, circa 1853. This medium-bodied pale ale is known for being creamy and malty with a slight sweetness. In 1992, Boddingtons was one of the first beers to start using a widget can.
The last few years have seen the rise of nitro coffee, from the canned coffee section of your local grocery store to Starbucks. It shouldn’t be surprising then that Guinness decided to jump on that trend with this nitro beer that combines coffee and beer. With a relatively low 4 percent ABV, Guinness Nitro Cold Brew Coffee might not knock you over, but a can or two of this may keep you up at night.
According to Left Hand, Milk Stout Nitro is a “full sensory experience.” The first of the brewery’s nitro line, this stout has a “mesmerizing cascade” along with aromas of coffee, chocolate, brown sugar, and vanilla. Released on the first night of the 2011 Great American Beer Festival, Milk Stout Nitro was the first craft brewery to bottle a nitrogen beer without a widget.