Smooth operator! Nitrogen-charged beers are a velvety treat
About two years ago, Longmont, Colo.-based Left Hand Brewing Company made one of the greatest scientific advances of our time (at least for us beer geeks): They figured out how to bottle their excellent Milk Stout “on nitro,” charging it with nitrogen gas to create a creamy and sweet treat that you can enjoy in the comfort of your own home.
Up until then, you either had to go to a craft beer bar to get a taste of a nitro-charged beer, or make do with a slightly watery can of Guinness Draught.
Now, Left Hand has just released two more “nitro” beers – the bombastically boozy Wake Up Dead Stout and their popular Sawtooth All-American Ale – both ready to please your palate with an almost supernatural velvety smoothness.
‘On Nitro’ explained
Most beers you know and love are pressured with carbon dioxide, which gives them their sharp, effervescent quality. When a beer is served “on nitro” it’s pressurized with a mix of nitrogen and carbon dioxide (usually around 70 percent nitrogen to 30 percent CO2) and things change. The beer takes on an amazingly creamy mouthfeel and the flavor becomes more rounded and balanced, with its sweeter aspects being drawn to the forefront.
It takes special gear to make this bubbly magic happen at the bar, because nitrogen is an easy-going gas, far less volatile than the carbon dioxide used to pressurize standard tap lines. To get the bubbles flowing, a high pressure “stout fountain” is used, which activates the nitrogen gasses in the beer. Without this special spigot, the beer would just lie there in the glass, appearing flat and lifeless.
Recreating the pleasure of a nitrogen-powered beer at home is difficult, but Left Hand has managed to make it happen with two words that adorn the cap of all their Nitro beers; “Pour Hard.”
That’s exactly what I did with all three bottles of Left Hand’s Nitro collection, starting with Milk Stout, which I savagely poured into a tulip glass, flipping the bottle upside down and glurging its contents fast.
Instead of foaming over the sides of the vessel, the black liquid was still for a moment, until a tan cloud began to emerge below the surface of the beer. This gave way to “the cascade,” a downward roiling of tiny bubbles that happens as the nitrogen comes into contact with the edges of the glass. While it’s fun to see, things get even better when you take a sip.
Left Hand Milk Stout Nitro has an incredibly soft mouthfeel, substantial, yet almost frothy. It simply glides across your tongue with a smoothness that has to be experienced to be appreciated. Left Hand advises that you keep their Nitro beers cold, but you’ll want to let this one warm up a bit before sampling. As it warms, rewarding tastes of milk chocolate (almost like a milkshake), coffee and vanilla emerge — delightful flavors that are well worth the wait.
Next up was Wake Up Dead Nitro, Left Hand’s 10.2 percent ABV Russian Imperial Stout. The nitrogen smoothes out this beer’s big notes of licorice, cocoa and vanilla, wrapping them in a cocoon of velvety sweetness. Then a nice alcohol kick at the back end of the beer comes barreling through, making for a cool sensation in your mouth and a useful reminder that this beer is packing some serious ABV. Of the trio, this one was my hands-down favorite, as I’m a sucker for big and boozy dark beers.
Sawtooth All-American Ale is the only member of the group that doesn’t benefit from the flavor-smoothing effects of the nitrogen. One gets the sensation that this 5.3 percent ABV Extra Special Bitter’s gentle flavors are being kept at arms length, as the crispness that you might associate with this type of beer and the hoppy bite at the end are enrobed by the soft veil of the nitrogen, unable to find purchase on the palate. It’s like drinking a beer with your tongue wrapped in latex.
Overall, these beers from Left Hand are the best thing to happen to parents of small children since Pay-Per-View movies and sushi delivery. It’s a wonderful treat to be able to enjoy a good beer on nitro without having to worry about babysitters or driving home.