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Kelsey explains beer: Nitrogen
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Left Hand Brewing Co.'s Nitro Milk Stout - photo by Austin Steele

When I gazed upon my first pint of fresh Guinness, I was smitten. 

How could you not fall in love with those cascading tiny bubbles, that silky mouthfeel and creamy head?

Oddly enough, it took me traveling to Dublin and wandering into the Guinness Storehouse to finally experience my first encounter with the beer. 

As most people know, you can thank nitrogen for the beloved characteristics of Guinness beer. 

The centuries-old brewery pioneered the process of nitrogenated beer as a draft-only product, and became the first in the world to release nitrogenated canned and bottled beer. 

If you’ve had a can of Guinness, then you’ve most likely noticed the plastic ball rattling in the can. That’s called the widget. It’s purpose is to release nitrogen into the beer once opened, which recreates the smoothness of drinking it on draft. 

Surprisingly, it wasn’t until 2011 that a U.S. brewery found its own secret to successfully bottling nitro beer. Instead of using a widget, Left Hand Brewing Company out of Longmont figured out another way to replicate the characteristics of a tap-poured beer with its Milk Stout Nitro.

I’d like to explain how they did it, but Left Hand is known for keeping their secret under lock and key.  

Enough about nitro beer history, let’s talk about brewing it. 

Since I’ve never personally made nitro beer, I decided to call up my dear friend, Tommy Rodeck. He’s the owner and brewmaster of Hoppy Trout Brewing Company in Andrews, North Carolina, and has been making nitro stouts since he opened the business in 2015. 

Technically, he said any beer can be a nitro. However, you mostly see it with stouts and porters because the creamy effects of nitrogen compliment the malty characteristics of beer.

When Rodeck makes his nitro stout, he brews the beer with a little less carbon dioxide than usual. Nitrogen comes into play with the nitro tap. 

Rodeck said the nitro tap contains a restrictor plate, which has tiny holes. 

“All the beer that comes out of the tap is forced to go through those tiny holes,” he said. “In order to get the pressure high enough to do that, we use nitrogen. It creates little nitrogen pockets in the beer, which creates that creamy, silky mouthfeel.”

The nitrogen is a part of a “beer gas” Rodeck uses, which is 75% nitrogen and 25% carbon dioxide.

One of the aspects I love most about nitro beer is the way it’s poured. The beer wants you to wait and work for it. 

Rodeck recommends starting the pour by tilting the glass at a 45-degree angle and filling it about two-thirds. You then tilt the beer back in its upright position and pour until the glass is three-fourths full. Once the beer has settled, fill the last bit up swiftly and enjoy the show. 

Since hooking up the nitro tap is a fairly simple process, Rodeck said the only challenge he experienced with making his first nitro beer was with the carbonation. 

“The main thing you want to watch out for is how carbonated it is before you put it on tap,” he said. “It would just be pure foam if you did it incorrectly.”

If you’re itching to try a locally made nitro beer, check out Georgia’s first canned nitro beer — Ode to Mercy ‘Nitrode,’ made by Wild Heaven Beer. The 7.2% coffee brown ale offers a sinfully smooth mouthfeel. Luckily, it’s one of the Wild Heaven’s core brews, so it’s not too hard to find. 

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