The beer industry is built on “passing trends.” Folks derided the rise of hazy IPAs when they first entered the scene — like it or not, hazy or New England IPAs are here to stay — while some developments in beer faded like black IPAs or glitter beer. “Nitro,” or nitrogenated, beer has been dubbed a fad at various points in history but has managed to stick around in modern drinking culture.

At this point, you’ve likely seen nitro pop up throughout the food and beverage world. One of the most pervasive uses of liquid nitrogen is in the world of coffee with nitro cold brew, the super creamy, near-ubiquitous feature in upscale coffee shops.

We’re diving headfirst into the world of nitro beer with the help of Chart Industries, leaders in the liquid nitrogen dosing industry.

The History of Liquid Nitrogen in Beer

guinness nitro draught pour

Photo courtesy of Guinness

Before we look at modern applications, it’s important to understand where nitro beer developed. Chart Industries had been experimenting with liquid nitrogen dosing since the ’80s. But, it was Guinness that popularized and proliferated nitro stouts.

“Nitrogen was originally designed as a way to mimic hand-pulled beers,” says James Cain, Chart Industries’ Liquid Nitrogen Dosing Specialist. Traditional brewpubs in Europe would serve beer from casks and on draft. Rather than pushed out of a keg with CO2, cask ale is pumped out manually. Traditionally, cask ale has a smooth, full texture and, because there’s no interaction with CO2, the beer will go flat pretty quickly. While this method was extremely popular, and still remains in use, it requires both human interaction and on-site consumption. You can’t exactly bottle up cask ale and enjoy it at home.

So, to recreate this experience, Guinness began experimenting with nitrogenating their beers. And eventualy developing a nitro bottled and canned beer.

Cain looks to Guinness as the godfather of the nitro beer practice. Not only was Guinness interested in the flavor benefits of nitrogenated beer, but also the brewery sought a way to create consistency. Anectodally, serving cask ale required work of the pub. There were instances in the long history of cask ale where breweries would send “unfinished” beer to a pub and on-site cellarmen would finish fermenting the beer before serving. Understandably, this could lead to instances of human error. Nitrogen could be a good way to prevent that.

“Breweries like Guiness have used nitrogen as a way of ensuring consistency from pint to pint,” Cain says.

Liquid nitrogen is commonly used in packaging, for instance in the broader food and beverage industries, and its uses in craft beer have developed significantly over the past few years.

The Science Behind Nitro Beer

liquid nitrogen in craft beer

But how does liquid nitrogen actually work?

“Nitrogen is very insoluble in liquid,” Cain states. “To get it to dissolve, you need to pressurize it, and you need to keep it cold.”

So, to serve nitro beer on draft, you need pressure. Nitro beers are nitrogenated either prior to packaging in pressure-sealed kegs or in-line on the way to a draft system. And dedicated nitro drafts feature a restrictor plate, which serves to force the beer through tiny holes and allow the dissolved N2 gas in the beer to escape quickly. This is what creates the stunning cascade effect that forms immediately in the glass.

If you’ve ordered a nitro beer, you’ll likely recall that whirlpool effect — tiny bubbles dancing in a typhoon of a creamy dark stout. What’s happening is, because the glass is not pressurized or cold enough, nitrogen is trying to escape. And, the fastest way out is down. So, nitrogen rushes down, that fluffy, fragrant foam forms up top, and then nitrogen escapes up and out the sides of your glass. It’s a stunning visual effect that leaves you with a glass of frothy beer.

To recreate that experience in a packaged product, Guinness placed a widget in its bottles and cans. When Guinness infused liquid nitrogen into its stout while packaging, the nitrogen would rush into the widget and would stay relatively well pressurized. But, when you open that can of Guinness, pressure drops and the nitrogen escapes from the widget. (You’ll likely hear a pop when you open a nitro beer.) And, with a hard pour, you can create that swirling nitro beer effect as the nitrogen dances down and out of your glass.

nitro beer in a glass

Over the years, liquid nitrogen dosing has improved to the point that the widget isn’t necessary for packaged beers. In fact, folks like James Cain at Chart Industries helped to develop dosing techniques that create a more precise packaged product. Brewers can simply dose their beer on the packaging line without the need for a widget. Consumers pop open the beer, “hard pour” their beer, and, voila, lush nitro beer in a glass.

What’s the Future of Nitro Beer?

left hand nitro stout

Photo courtesy of Left Hand Brewing Co.

It’s true that nitro beer hasn’t caught on in the same way that hazy IPAs have. Though, the similarities in lush mouthfeels and engaging visuals are remarkable. There are still those that continue to beat the drum of nitro beer.

Breweries like Guinness, and more recently Left Hand, popularized nitro beer in stout form. But, there’s been a recent push toward experimenting with liquid nitrogen beyond the world of dark beer.

“Traditionally, liquid nitrogen was only used in stout and porters,” says Christina Marrick, Chart Industries’ Business Development Manager. “But now you’re seeing IPAs, Reds, Browns, Cream Ales, and even the occasional Lager, there are a lot of options.”

Liquid nitrogen can serve as a packaging solution for brewers making a variety of styles. And, the use of nitrogen dosing has been an effective way to extend the shelf life of beer and manage dissolved oxygen.

But, the flavor effects of liquid nitrogen dosing could fit in with the current trend of milkshake IPAs, fruited sours, and dessert-forward stouts. That creaminess plays well with these full-bodied styles that don’t prioritize “clean” flavors.

Moreover, Marrick pointed to potential CO2 shortages in the industry that were remarked upon in the past year. If brewers are seeking an alternative to CO2, liquid nitrogen might be a good fit.

Hop Culture’s Favorite Nitro Beer

Guinness is undeniably the OG king of nitro beer, but we’ve found a few craft nitro beers that we’ve thoroughly enjoyed.

Milk Stout Nitro

Left Hand Brewing — Longmont, CO

nitro milk stout from left hand

Left Hand Brewing took the torch from Guinness and has helped lead the pack of nitro beer in the craft landscape. Milk Stout Nitro is a classic example of the style and features that traditional creamy, foam with a robust, chocolate flavor. Left Hand has also dabbled with liquid nitrogen in other styles but Milk Stout Nitro.

Learn More

Sweet Potato Ale

Vault Brewing Co. — Yardley, PA

Vault Brewing Co. was actually founded by Cain, whom we spoke with above. Cain has been a leader in the liquid nitrogen space in craft beer. After developing dosing techniques for his own brewery, he joined the team at Chart Industries and continues to innovate in the category.

Sweet Potato Ale from Vault is a delectable fall treat. Brewed with roasted sweet potatoes, Madagascar vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, molasses, and milk sugar, this is like autumn in a can. And the nitro dosing adds a warming creaminess to this sweet potato ale.

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Nitro Black House

Modern Times Beer — San Diego, CA

modern times nitro beer

Modern Times took its standard oatmeal stout and took it up a notch with a heavy dose of coconut & cocoa nibs as well as some liquid nitrogen. The result is an uber creamy stout with lovely tropical chocolate flavors. It’s lush, luxurious, and perfect for summertime sipping or enjoying in the cold months of winter.

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This is a paid, sponsored article presented by Chart Industries.

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