- Mike Riedel
The odds are pretty good that your go-to beer has carbon dioxide (CO2) in it. It's the standard gas in beer because it's a natural part of the fermentation process. There is, however, an alternative method for conditioning beer that uses nitrogen (N2) instead. The process for nitro beers, as they are now known, was developed by St. James' Gate Brewery (Guinness) back in the late 1950s. The goal was to duplicate the feel of traditional cask ales while serving them from kegs instead of the older gravity-driven casks. They discovered that the nitrogen didn't dissolve so easily. This gave the beer a creamy and smooth mouthfeel that tended to dampen the perceived bitterness that CO2 created. The nitrogen addition was a game-changer for Guinness, and it quickly spread across the U.K.
About 20 years later, Guinness pioneered another innovation in nitro beers, adding the gas to bottled beer. Given the solubility issue, their solution was to add a plastic capsule—or "widget"—in the bottle that would rupture when the beer was opened, thus releasing the gas only as it was served. One of our local breweries has committed itself to the development of nitro brews in our market, and has been an innovator in implementing the newest technology and techniques.
The Utah Brewers Cooperative was formed in 2000 by Wasatch and Squatters as a joint venture to aid in their mutual pursuit of getting their beers to thirsty Utahns. A decade later, they merged into one company, and became at that time the largest brewery in the Utah. One of the UBC's biggest sellers has been Polygamy Porter; its combination of name and drinkability made it a perfect candidate for nitration. Around 2012, Wasatch began offering their porter on N2 taps around the state to huge kudos; it was only a matter of time before they expanded it to bottles.
There was one problem, however: Those aforementioned widgets are little pricey, so they needed an alternative. After years of research, the UBC developed a proprietary method for infusing nitrogen into beer without a widget. Only Colorado's Left Hand Brewing Co. has similarly succeeded in this. With this new tech at their disposal, they can now start developing new nitro brands to an ever-expanding audience.
Besides putting Polygamy Nitro Porter in bottles (and now also cans), the UBC has also developed a new nitro ale from Squatters called, appropriately enough, Nitro Red Ale. This ale is a deep ruby color that is aggressively hopped to overcome the softening effects of the gas. The result is a velvety smooth ale that has a nice fruitiness brought on by the malts and the addition of Comet hops. It's a nice contrast from Polygamy Nitro Porter's milk chocolate and espresso qualities. Polygamy Nitro cans (6 percent ABV) can be found at all DABC stores, and Squatters Nitro Red Ale will be hitting most grocery- and convenience store shelves in two weeks.
If that's not enough to help you get your nitro groove on, I'm excited to be the first to let you know that Wasatch is packaging their award-winning pumpkin ale in nitro cans for home consumption. Look for it at the end of August. That makes three canned nitro offerings. It's good to be a beer nerd, eh?
As always, cheers!