The Booze Street Journal: What is Nitrogen Doing in Beer?

So beer is great. I know, I know that’s an obvious statement. You can do so many different things with beer to change it. Add hops, subtract hops, different barleys and different strains of yeast. It is all so cool. Something that is really starting to hit the mainstream with force that is none of those things is nitrogen or nitro. But what does nitrogen do in beer and how do you put nitrogen in beer? Pour yourself a tall glass of knowledge, because it’s 40% ABV and it’s going to hit you hard.

Regular beer

So your average beer will use priming sugar in the bottling stage. The priming sugar, which is pretty much just adding a bit of regular sugar to each can, bottle, or keg, creates the carbonation in the beer. The CO2 fills up the rest of the space in the container that the beer does not fill. So thank sugar for that satisfying sound of opening a new brew.

This CO2 creates the bubbly profile of beer and gives it that crisper, almost sharper taste. Typically, beers like ales, lagers, and Pale Ale types will use carbonation. Sometimes though, a brewery will get wild and use nitro in their beer.

What does nitrogen do?

Truthfully, I do not know too much about it. My knowledge of nitrogen starts and ends at Guinness. My goodness, I love Guinness. Which, Guinness is one of the first users of nitrogen beer. So If you have had Guinness, you have had a nitro beer. Anyway, I did not know all that much so I did some research for you fine folk.

First, I learned that it is not pure nitrogen in beer. Brewers use a gas mixture of about 70% nitrogen and about 30% CO2. So even when you drink a nitro beer, you still have come carbonation.

Second, nitrogen creates smaller bubbles than regular carbonation. This means that nitrogen creates that tight head on top of the beer. Instead of the bubbles having an escape, they are so packed in from being small that they get trapped in the head.

Third, the addition of nitrogen causes the beer to become a more milky brew versus the crisper, harder regular-type beer. That milky-ness is why porters and stouts are the typical nitro beer. They use a dark malted barley that creates the chocolate or coffee taste.

How do brewers add nitrogen to the beer?

So they actually call the Booze Ghoul. It’s like the beer fairy, bringing all those nice pieces of equipment to all the good little brewers out there. What exactly are the goods needed to make the good stuff? Three things.

One piece of equipment is a nitrogen cylinder. It is something similar to a CO2 cylinder that you see for balloon blowing. It is slightly different though as I found out nitrogen creates a higher level of pressure compared to CO2 due to its gas density. So a nitrogen cylinder is built to withstand higher pressure.

The second is a nitrogen regulator. Again, similar to its CO2 counterpart except it is modified to work for nitrogen. The higher pressure of nitro means that the nitrogen regulator has to be able to withstand higher levels of pressure.

The third piece is a nitrogen faucet. It attaches below the tap for Guinness, which allows the tap to go both ways with one way with nitrogen and one not nitro-infused. On the nitrogen pull, the nitrogen faucet has a bunch of tiny holes in a metal plate. This forces the CO2 out of the brew and makes room for the nitrogen, making that smooth, milky pour.

So there you are folks! I hope you liberally imbibed in the knowledge! I know all this talk makes me thirsty for an Irish Guinness (a Guinness in its natural habitat, Ireland).

Comment if you have questions or want to pick next weeks topic!

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