As you may have noticed, we generally, although not always, have a beer on “nitro”. For those new to “nitro”, you’re probably wondering what that means and whether or not you’re going to have that feeling like you do at the dentist when they put the laughing gas mask over your nose before they put in a filling. No, nitro in the beer context doesn’t stand for nitrous oxide (a.k.a., laughing gas). We like to do things differently at Lake Bluff Brewing Company, but we’re not that stupid. Beer on “nitro” does stand for nitrogen though and has to do with what gas is used to nitrogenate the beer.
Typically, beer is carbonated with 100% carbon dioxide which provides the bubbly head on the beer and fizzy taste on your tongue. The beer can be “artificially” (force carbonated) or it can be naturally carbonated (a.k.a., bottle conditioned). Most breweries nowadays, including LBBC, force carbonate the beer after fermentation by pushing carbon dioxide into a pressurized tank containing the beer through a sintered stone. Various amounts of carbon dioxide are used depending on the style of the beer. An English ale would be very lightly carbonated, whereas a Belgian Trippel is highly carbonated and effervescent.
In contrast, for beers on nitro, the gas used during the carbonation process is a mix of
25% carbon dioxide and 75% nitrogen. After being nitrogenated, the nitro beer is forced through a special tap faucet with a restrictor plate with tiny holes, causing the nitrogen to break out of the solution and create a creamy, thick head. You may have seen a Guiness stout poured on nitro and the cascading effect of the bubbles falling down the side of the glass.
The nitro does not only have a visual impact on the beer, but also impacts the flavor and aroma perception. Flavors and aroma tend to be more harsh for beers that are carbonated with carbon dioxide rather than on nitro, where hops can tend to mellow a bit in the aroma. This is one reason that historically beers on nitro have typically been maltier styles like stouts or porters that feature a complex malt flavor versus those with a pronounced hop aroma. In addition, a nitro beer will taste a bit flatter, but will make up for that with a full, creamy mouthfeel.
At Lake Bluff Brewing Company we like to mix it up though so you’ll find almost all of our varieties on nitro from time to time and we encourage you to try it when something new goes on. One of my favorites is the Skull and Bones Double Pale Ale on nitro. Not a typical style for nitro, but well worth the experiment. The smooth malty backbone comes shining through, yet there is still enough bitterness and hop presence yet to balance, and the creamy mouthfeel of the nitro makes it a dessert-like, indulgent experience.
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Awesome beer photos by Vagabondhops. Used with permission.