Hop-Ed: Death to Nitro IPAs

Sam Adam's new Nitro releases. Photo by Alex Wilking.
Written by Alex Wilking

By Alex Wilking
BU News Service

After a long day at work, nothing takes the edge off like a glass of cold, creamy oatmeal.

I hope you cringed. But that’s what you get when you order a nitro beer. There are a number of ways nitrogen can weasel its way into your beer, and most detract from why you drink beer in the first place.

The addition of nitrogen to beer gives it a creamy, malty smoothness that it otherwise wouldn’t be able to obtain. It eliminates bite and bitterness, replacing them with intrusive balance (and a nice head). It’s commonly paired with darker beers like stouts — which compliment the added creaminess — and then slapped with the “nitro” label because…marketing. Since most beers already contain carbon dioxide, which gives a beer its carbonation, nitro replaces most of said CO2 and eliminates any lingering bubbles.

According to CraftBeer.com, a typical nitrogenated beer contains about 70 percent nitrogen and 30 percent carbon dioxide. Nitrogen is added late in the carbonation process of brewing and can also be added when tapped at a bar, where beer is siphoned out with nitrogen before it hits your glass. Guinness is brewed (and tapped) with nitrogen, but other than that, nitro wasn’t commonplace at bars or liquor stores. Until now.

Guinness's Nitro IPA. Photo by Alex Wilking.

Guinness’s Nitro IPA. Photo by Alex Wilking.

Now Samuel Adams is debuting a whole line of nitro beers, which will start hitting shelves this month. Now Guinness has a Nitro IPA. Now Left Hand Brewing Co. — one of the leading nitro beer producers in the U.S. — has increased its nitro lineup to four. Fortune Magazine recently named “Nitro-mania” one of its 2016 craft beer trends to look out for. Bars are even catching on, aiming to offer at least one nitro beer on tap.

Nitro beer is undoubtedly taking over. There’s even a specific way you’re supposed to pour them. But if you don’t enjoy this forced elegance, you can come riot in the streets with me.

I think that nitro IPAs are an abomination to craft brewing. When I look for an IPA, I’m looking for bite, for flavor, for enveloping bitterness. It’s the whole reason the beer style found popularity in the U.S. to begin with. Nitro takes all those golden elements away and taints them with oatmeal. Thickness and oatmeal.

While I don’t personally enjoy nitro stouts either, I do understand the appeal of that combo. Stouts are appealing for their savory booziness, and nitro augments that. My issue with nitro beers really just stems from my appreciation for IPAs.

I also understand that there’s a demand for nitro in everything, despite my reservations. Distributing nitro beers on a large scale requires an entirely different method of canning/bottling from the norm, so it’s a smaller market as well. Left Hand Brewing was actually the first craft brewery to start bottling nitrogen-enhanced beers in 2011. It’s almost an art style, something that only a select part of the craft-beer community drifts toward due to the associated costs.

And that’s fine. With the recent rise in nitro beers, I realize the potential of this simple brewing modification. But let’s think about why we drink beer. We want to take the edge off, relax, unwind — pick your favorite. If all of our beers succumb to nitro, what happens to the sharp flavors? The dimension and hop characteristics? For darker nitro beers, I get it. But IPAs were first introduced for their bitterness, to let the hops take center stage. Now we’re making them smooth and malty, another victim of nitro’s clout.

There’s a purity I want to preserve here: that some beer styles should have a bite because you need it after your long day. That IPAs are intended to have depth, sharpness and complexity to them. Call me anti-nitro, anti-oatmeal, whatever helps you sleep. But if we keep nitro confined to the dark beer category and hold back our desires to add it to damn near everything, maybe we can let IPAs keep their integrity.

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