Beer Rides The Nitro Wave

Nitro beers have gone from being a niche curiosity to a full-blown trend.

Nitrogenated brews are pushing the craft beer envelope. Offerings like Left Hand Brewing Co.’s Nitro milk stout are growing in popularity as the craft audience matures.
Nitrogenated brews are pushing the craft beer envelope. Offerings like Left Hand Brewing Co.’s Nitro milk stout are growing in popularity as the craft audience matures.

One of the hottest beer trends today has been evident at Peco’s Liquors in Wilmington, Delaware, for years. “Guinness Draught is among my top-selling singles,” says Ed Mulvihill, director of sales and marketing at Peco’s. Indeed, the recent wave of nitro beer introductions doesn’t surprise him. “Nitro is not a novelty,” Mulvihill says. “It adds characteristics to the beer.”

With the recent onslaught of packaged nitro beers—which use nitrogen, rather than the more traditional carbon dioxide, to add body to a brew—it would be easy to assume that nitros are just the latest beer fad. But nitrogen-infused Guinness Draught was first released in Ireland more than 50 years ago. It was followed in the late 1980s by a canned version that uses a widget to release the gas when opened. Craft nitros on draft have been popular in beer bars in recent years as well. But the launch of new packaged nitro beers from Boston Beer Co. and other craft brewers—along with Guinness’ new Nitro IPA—could go a long way in widely popularizing the segment.

“We’re happy with the sales of Guinness Nitro IPA so far,” says Emma Giles, Guinness brand director at Diageo. Launched late last year in six-packs of 11.2-ounce cans ($8.99), the brew is designed “for the IPA drinker who wants something smoother, creamier and maltier than a classic American IPA and for the person who wants to try a balanced but hoppier alternative to a traditional lager or ale,” she says.

Boston Beer, meanwhile, launched its Nitro Project brews earlier this year. Sam Adams Nitro IPA, white ale and coffee stout are packaged in four-packs of 15.8-ounce cans with a suggested retail price of $8.99 to $10.99. The cans feature a hollow, cylindrical plastic widget or “nitrogenator.” Boston Beer founder Jim Koch recommends pouring the beer straight down the center of a glass immediately after opening in order to experience “the trademark cascade and to enjoy the creamy, thick head. Nitrogen completely changes the beer’s flavor, softening it and taking off the rough edges.” Koch notes that early responses to the brews have been “overwhelmingly positive.”

Longmont, Colorado’s Left Hand Brewing Co. is credited with being the first craft brewer to bottle a nitrogen beer. The brewery introduced its Nitro milk stout in 2011. Today nitro beers account for more than one-third of Left Hand’s volume, according to cofounder and CEO Eric Wallace. The company hosts an annual Nitro Fest, showcasing mostly draft nitro brews from more than 40 craft breweries. “It’s great to see more attention brought to the nitro category and to continue to create excitement with beer fans,” Wallace says. Other craft breweries packaging nitro beers include Oskar Blues and Breckenridge, while Firestone Walker has launched Nitro Merlin milk stout on draft nationally.

Seasonal nitros are also beginning to make an appearance. Left Hand introduced Hard Wired Nitro, a coffee porter, in January, and Wallace says, “We might have a few more nitro tricks up our sleeves.” Breckenridge—which was acquired by Anheuser-Busch InBev last year—will launch its seasonal nitro program this fall, joining existing year-round offerings Nitro Vanilla porter and Nitro Lucky U IPA.

Beer retailers and on-premise operators are seeing increased interest in nitro beers. “The market is now so flooded with crafts, if consumers see something different, they’ll try it,” says Ken Chapman, co-owner of Crafthouse restaurant in Chesterton, Indiana. Out of 17 beers on draft ($3 to $9, pour size varies), two tap handles are sometimes reserved for nitros, he notes. Response to Guinness Nitro IPA has been good so far. “It’s more of a starter nitro, as it’s lower in alcohol,” Chapman explains. Mulvihill of Peco’s Liquors says that the new Guinness label is doing “fairly well. It’s outperforming the overall import category at my store.”

Marketers of the brews are confident that nitro beers are far from a fad. “Continuing to offer quality and styles that work well with nitrogen will be key factors to long-term success,” says Boston Beer’s Koch. Giles of Diageo agrees. “Beer dispensed on nitrogen can be an amazing drinking experience,” she says. “I would definitely expect to see it happening more often.”