Dining » Vol. 52

To nitro or not to nitro?

By Kerry Cyganiewicz

It seems there have been a few new beers introduced with the moniker of “nitro.” What is it? How it is different? And the most important question: Should I order it?

Most beer that we drink is carbonated by carbon dioxide. The fermented beer is introduced to the carbon dioxide within a sealed container. The beer then absorbs the carbon dioxide, and you have the tickling fizzy thing we know as carbonated beer. When a beer is said to be “nitro,” it is really a mix of approximately 70 percent nitrogen and 30 percent oxygen. I say approximately because some brewers tweak this percentage. Customization is something you will find in one form or another in every craft brewery you visit. I had someone ask me if it was nitroglycerin in the beer – the explosive nitroglycerine – I kid you not. I should have responded that’s the real reason you can’t smoke in bars anymore.

After the nitro beer is carbonated, it is also dispensed differently. Bars need a specific draught setup to create higher pressure and a tank of specialty beer gas – approximately 75 percent nitrogen and 25 percent carbon dioxide – to push the beer through the unique faucet. All of these elements work together to pour you a cascading pint of nitro ale. It takes a little longer and costs the bar owner a bit more, but it is worth it. If you ever get the chance to try a regular and a nitro beer side by side, please do. You can even do this at home, as some nitro beers even come packaged in bottles or cans, with small discs that release nitrogen upon opening.

Now that you know how what it is and how it’s done, the question is should you drink it? My answer is perhaps. If the bar will offer a half-pour or does sample flights, I would not hesitate to try any beer on nitro. My experience is that a nitro beer tends to have a fuller mouthfeel, almost like a milkshake, and a reduced bitterness. For me personally, malt-forward beers tend to taste better this way. Stouts, porters, wee heavies and even darker Belgians are a real treat served on nitro. I’ve noticed a tendency to serve specialty beers, like those with chocolate, vanilla beans and even peppermint, on nitro, and I have enjoyed them all. I did not enjoy the lighter beers served this way, like the pale ales or the wheat beers, as I found their flavors to get lost in the heavier mouthfeel.


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