When people sit down to enjoy a beer, there’s a general sense of comfort and tradition that goes along with it. After all, beer has existed as a recreational, relaxing beverage for thousands of years. However, just because something has a rich history doesn’t mean it can’t be reexamined continually and tweaked over time. Independent craft breweries have full control over their brewing process, which offers them the unique ability to perfect their creations through experiments and innovations. One element that has recently gained traction in the craft brewing world is nitrogen.
At first, this can seem somewhat of a jarring association. Most people think of nitrogen as strictly belonging in chemistry laboratories and perhaps occasionally brought out for fun liquid nitrogen demonstrations. How could beer and nitrogen possibly be associated with each other? As it turns out, the element has some great uses for the beer industry. To fully understand and appreciate the relationship between beer and nitrogen, it’s important to start with a thorough breakdown of the brewing process.
How Is Beer Made?
While the specific brewing tools have certainly seen a fair amount of upgrades over the years, the basic process of making beer hasn’t changed too drastically. It may seem complex, but it starts small. Brewing begins with four main ingredients: grains, hops, water, and yeast. Many types of grains can be utilized in the process, each with its own unique flavor. The most common varieties found in beer are barley, wheat, and rye. However, craft breweries will often experiment with all sorts of alternatives to come up with uniquely delicious creations.
Regardless of which grains are selected, they must be harvested at the right time. They are also checked for quality, as pickers must ensure they are not infested with fungi or covered in other foreign matter, among other things. Once harvested, the grains are dried to remove excess moisture and cleansed of any impurities. This is all done to prepare them for a process known as malting. The purpose of malting is to produce starch enzymes, which will be necessary later on in the process.
The next step, called mashing, involves steeping the malted grains in hot water. This triggers a chemical process that causes the grains to break down and release sugar. Grinding down the malt makes the process more effective, and there are a variety of ways to do this. The mashing continues until starch enzymes in the grains have been fully activated, leaving behind a syrupy, sweet liquid. This substance is called wort. The wort is then drained of excess water and separated from any residual grain pieces.
After the wort is separated and brought to a boil, hops are added. These can be incorporated in different concentrations depending on preference, as they give the beer its characteristic bitterness. Hops are valuable additions due to their natural, preservative properties, allowing beer to have a fairly long shelf life. At this stage, other spices can be added as well to further transform and flavor the beverage.
Next, the beer is transferred into a special fermenting vessel, and the final ingredient, yeast, is added. The purpose of the yeast is to break down the sugars in the beer, creating alcohol and carbon dioxide in the process. The alcohol is responsible for beer’s intoxicating effects, while the carbon dioxide provides the bubbly quality. This step is known as fermentation. There are two different types of yeast, and they require slight differences in storage methods to ferment properly, though the ultimate goal is the same.
What Does Nitrogen Do in the Brewing Process?
You may be wondering how nitrogen could fit into the above process and why anyone thought to incorporate this element in the first place. While traditional methods can result in the creation of delicious beverages, they are faced with one obstacle: time. Like most gases, carbon dioxide dissolves into a liquid over time, causing that fizzy sensation to disappear. This means that the longer a beer is left in storage, the less carbonated it will be. Nitrogen dissolves much more slowly, making it an ideal tool to preserve beer’s carbonation over longer periods. It also creates a longer-lasting foam, which adds to its presentation.
To create this beverage, nitrogen is infused with beer, often by a pressurized pump. However, this doesn’t eliminate the presence of carbon dioxide. Most brewers apply a specific ratio of both elements to their products. The most common breakdown is 70 percent nitrogen and 30 percent carbon dioxide.
While this was the initially intended application, brewers who began utilizing nitrogen in the beers discovered something else. The bubbles created by nitrogen were much smaller than those made by carbon dioxide. This led to a much smoother, almost silky sensation when drinking nitro beers. This new quality was so impressive that many brewers have since sought out more effective infusion methods that would allow them to easily incorporate the effect on a larger scale.
Nitrogen’s Effect on Flavor
When we taste something for the first time, there is far more at work than our taste buds. Our visual impressions, the aromas we perceive, and the textures we feel all play a role in our experience of taste. As such, this simple change of one single aspect in beer offered people a completely new interpretation of previous flavors.
Some brewers have gone as far as offering tastings of the same beer with and without nitrogen, allowing consumers to compare and contrast the two. Those who have participated in such tastings have reported an increased creaminess, reduced bitterness, and more noticeable malt flavors. This effect on nitro beers’ taste has led brewers to pair the process with various sweet, rich flavors such as coffee, chocolate, and vanilla.
Nitrogen’s Effect on Presentation
Another aspect of beer that is changed with the introduction of nitrogen is its appearance. The foam in a traditional beer, created by carbon dioxide bubbles, somewhat resembles the foam that forms in a bubble bath. Meanwhile, the smoother foam created by the smaller nitrogen bubbles bears a likeness to the whipped topping you would find on a decadent dessert.
One other change to the appearance of nitrogen beer has fascinated many consumers, to the point where they feel compelled to point it out when they first encounter the drink: cascading bubbles. This is a phrase used to describe a phenomenon where, due to how the nitrogen bubbles interact with the edges of the glass, they appear to move down instead of rising up. While there is, of course, a rational explanation behind the odd behavior, it is nonetheless astounding to witness in person.
Challenges Involved in Nitro Brewing
This isn’t to say that the process of creating nitro beers doesn’t have its challenges. Because nitrogen doesn’t dissolve so readily in beer, it takes a lot of work for the infusion to take place. This means that if the beer isn’t contained carefully, the effect will be ruined. Due to this, there are currently many limitations to the production of nitro beers. Most are offered exclusively as a draft beer, where a special rig can ensure the beverage is delivered through a restrictor plate designed to encourage foaming. Some craft brewers have identified their own proprietary infusion methods that allow them to capture the experience in a bottle or can. However, these are still relatively rare products on the market.
The other complication involved in the production of nitro beers is sourcing the nitrogen. After all, it isn’t the sort of product you can find at most grocery stores. Nitrogen requires specific methods of storage and must be specially ordered in advance. If you have an unexpected change in your production, you might suddenly find yourself suffering from a shortage, forced to apply a temporary halt until the next shipment arrives. This is why some craft breweries have decided to invest in nitrogen generators. These systems can separate nitrogen from the air around us, resulting in a virtually endless supply.
Installing an onsite nitrogen generator is especially useful for brewers seeking to expand their production of nitrogen beers, making them permanent fixtures on the menu for future consumers to enjoy. Having a dedicated generator also affords them the freedom to experiment with new creations without worrying about wasting precious amounts of nitrogen.
The Technology Behind Nitrogen Generation for Nitro-Brewing Beer
Since the nitro beer trend first emerged, brewers have been looking for ways to eliminate the obstacle of ordering nitrogen every time they need it. As technology advances, nitrogen generation companies are changing the landscape of nitro-brewing by developing a way to make this possible with on-site generation systems. These nitrogen generators offer a safer, more cost-efficient alternative to gas cylinders and liquid nitrogen dewars.
Nitrogen generation systems bars and brewery to produce their own nitrogen in a cabinet equipped with the necessary air compressor, filters, human machine interface (HMI), sieve beds, flow meter, oxygen analyzer, pressure transducer, nitrogen tank, and auto-switch over to an optional back-up cylinder. The nitrogen can be used in tap delivery and storage to develop a perfect foam and the cascading head unique to nitro beers. These systems can serve up to five taps at one time and impart the exact texture and frothiness that consumers expect from their favorite nitro beers.
One of the most appealing aspects of using a nitrogen generation system is the money it saves. Eliminating the need for nitrogen delivery removes guesswork, as nitrogen can be produced in whatever quantity the business dictates at any given time. Plus, there is no need to worry about price fluctuations, delivery charges, cylinder rentals, and transportation costs.
The Future of Beer
While some craft breweries remain hesitant to adopt new methods, nitrogen beers are here to stay, and bars have taken note. Every day, more and more establishments have embraced the exciting new possibilities in the field and added nitrogen beers to their menus. This isn’t to say that there won’t always be an audience for more traditionally brewed beers, but the love for the rich, creamy smoothness of nitrogen beer is clear. If you have yet to try a nitrogen beer, consider ordering one on your next venture and experiencing the difference yourself!