The rise of the Nitro’ns

This morning I got an e-mail through from Beer Hawk, offering me a discount on a case of interesting U.S. beers in advance of the Superbowl. And were it not for a coincidence, that would have been that. But there it was, as plain as day, a bottle of Left Hand Brewing Co’s ‘Nitro’ – the stout in fact, one of a number available in their nitro series. The coincidence? Well, at a workshop I was running the other week, the same beer was brought along as an example of something new, an innovation. *draws breath*

Nitro beers. Well, clearly not an innovation: the first one I had was a ‘nitrogen flushed’ can of Draught Bass, and that was definitely in the late ‘80s. Actually, it only had a small proportion of nitrogen in it, the idea was to pour it moderately quickly and let it settle into a creamy head. The settle was quick too but it was a smooth drink and enjoyable too, although quite different to cask Bass. Then of course was the Widget Decade. Nitrogen flushed beer simply has mixed gas – CO2 and nitrogen. The widget beers have a canister, containing the nitrogen which is released upon opening. Guinness Bitter, Boddington’s, Worthington’s Geysir Flow™, Caffrey’s and then all manner of beers launched in a sort of nitrogen-fuelled technology arms race. We had fixed metal widgets, floating plastic widgets, balls, barrels and cylinders – you name it. There was even a Boston Beer Co beer (an ale-lager hybrid Boston Beer), distributed by Whitbread.   Some of these beers are still around: Boddington’s is in cans and of course, Guinness still has a widget variant.

Left-Hand-Brewing-Co-Nitro-IconsBut there is a problem. For everything the widget (and the nitrogen) gives in smooth texture and a bit of rippling theatre, it takes away in taste. I recently read a Sam Adams blog on the subject which, to paraphrase, said that ‘some beers work and others don’t’. I’d be surprised by this: at one point I ran an innovation project for a brewery and we put every beer the company brewed into widget and nitrogen flush cans – every single one either had suppressed flavour overall, or the nitrogen had an unbalancing effect, effectively emphasising one particular flavour component of the brew. Never positively.

Although there seem to be some differences this time – nitro products in glass for one, and a fully inverted pour, it feels like a circle coming round to the start again. I watch the (re)rise of the Nitro’ns with interest. And with scepticism.

© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2016

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