Is This Finally The Year For Nitro Beer?

In praise of the almighty widget.

13/02/2016 9:25 AM AEDT | Updated 13/02/2016 9:25 AM AEDT

Nitro beer "will change the world of craft brewing," Food Republic proclaimed two years ago.

Last year, CNBC said nitro is "beer's new frontier."

And this year, after three years of experimentation, Samuel Adams launched a new line of nitro (short for nitrogenated) canned beer, which includes a white ale, IPA and coffee stout; it says more varieties are forthcoming. People like them for their velvety smooth, well-balanced mouthfeel.

This all makes us wonder: Could 2016 finally be the year nitro goes mainstream?

Another Pint Please.../Flickr

First, a little explanation: Nitro beers aren't like your average beer; they get their fizz from a mix of carbon dioxide and nitrogen. The nitrogen interacts with the beer to make it a smoother, creamier, more evenly flavored, less bitter beer with a bigger, frothier head. Nitro beers from the can really do taste and feel like a beer from the tap at a bar. 

How does it happen? We'll let the Brewers Association explain:

"Nitrogen is largely insoluble in liquid, which is what contributes to the thick mouth feel. This effect is helped by a special piece of tap equipment known as a restrictor plate that forces the beer through tiny holes before it lands in the glass. That process causes the 'rising' effect that is topped with the head. And it’s really only the bubbles on the sides of the glass that fall. Inside they are actually rising, as typically seen with a poured carbonated beverage."

So why aren't more beers doing it?

It's a hard process to perfect. "We've had to put several million dollars of special equipment in just to fill these widget cans properly," Jim Koch, founder of Samuel Adams beer and chairman of Boston Beer Company, told CNBC. "We spent two years and a couple million dollars to put in the changes to the canning line to do it right."

It's even harder for the smaller craft brewers to do it, and a spokesperson for the Brewers Association told HuffPost it doesn't have data on how many brewers currently make nitrogenated beers. Left Hand Brewing's Nitro Milk Stout and Oskar Blues' Old Chub are more widely available craft nitros, and whereas breweries' biggest sellers are usually pale ales and IPAs, Left Hand's best-seller is that stout

Guinness is the nitro beer you probably already know about; shake an empty can of Guinness stout and you'll hear that nitrogenating widget rattle inside. It launched this technology in 1988, and recently debuted a new nitro beer, its IPA, last year.

Guinness' widget floats in the can; Samuel Adams' is fastened to the bottom of the can, and when you open the can, Samuel Adams recommends pouring the beer immediately into a glass, right down the middle, for the best result.

So: Yes. With two big brands making several nitro beers and microbreweries finding success with theirs, it's obvious that we're in the midst of a nitro moment -- but it'll take more than Samuel Adams and a new Guinness to make it explode in the marketplace.

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