Looking over a display the other day at a South Shore liquor store, three employees stood with their hands on their hips. "Nitro?" one asked, looking over a trio of new beers from Samuel Adams. "You mean like Guinness?"
Sort of. Guinness makes arguably the best-known nitrogen-infused beer. Poured into a glass from a tap or a can, the liquid billows onto itself, forming a frothy white head atop a jet-black beverage. Drinkers rarely think about the texture of their beer. It's simply fizzy. But nitrogen slows down the bubbles, resulting in a creamy texture. Harsh flavors like bitterness are muted.
You can pour any beer through a nitrogen tap, and some Boston bars save one or two taps for rotating various brews. Portable nitrogen beers are rarer, limited to English beers like Boddington's Pub Ale and American craft one-offs like Oskar Blues Old Chub NITRO. One untechnical explanation as to why: It's hard to get the nitrogen into that little can.
The technology isn't proprietary, but Boston Beer founder Jim Koch describes it as "difficult." A tiny widget called a nitrogenator activates as soon as the can opens, pushing gas through the beer with a crack, whoosh, gurgle.
Samuel Adams is entering the nitro game with three beers. Nitro White Ale, Nitro IPA, and Nitro Coffee Stout are the company's first stabs at nitro since the mid-1990s release of Boston Cream Ale. That beer was never canned. These are. They come in colorful 16-ounce cans with pictures of tiny bubbles cascading down the sides.
"We experimented with different options — bottles and cans with and without nitrogenators," says Koch. "But we ultimately felt the can with the nitrogenator delivered the best drinking experience."
The beers to add nitrogen to were chosen carefully, says Koch. Boston Lager was considered, but the hop balance of that beer worked against it. Koch says Samuel Adams considered 50 styles before settling on these three.
Nitro IPA is my least favorite. Samuel Adams made the brew more bitter than usual, and the result is a thick, one-note IPA heavy on pine and lacking the tropical fruit aromas I love (this beer, however, is a big step up from the newish Guinness Nitro IPA, a cloudy mess of a beer you wouldn't know has hops in it).
Nitro White Ale is a summer milkshake, an enjoyable, orange-y brew I'd happily drink again. And Nitro Coffee Stout is like Guinness on steroids. In addition to texture, you get loads of coffee and chocolate. It's a heavy beer in a form that suits it. It's one you'd peer down a line of taps to seek out.