Have you ever wondered how a Guinness stout came by its creamy texture, and frothy white head atop a jet-black beverage? In the 1950s, a pioneering team of brewers at Guinness discovered the answer for a better stout on tap was… nitrogen.

British mathematician-turned-brewer Michael Ash is credited as the inventor of nitrogenated beer after he led a team that created a nitrogenated dispense system for Guinness stout. Despite the doubters at the time, Ash was convinced that nitrogen could revolutionise the way Guinness was drafted, and by 1959 he came up with a new way to draft beer with nitrogen for the Dublin, Ireland-based brewer.

When infused into beer, nitrogen bubbles are smaller and livelier than carbon dioxide (CO2) and the result is a smoother feel to the drink. It was finally released in Ireland in 1964 with the launch of nitrogen-infused Guinness™ Draught, which became the most popular of all Guinness beers.

“Carbon dioxide makes big bubbles, nitrogen makes smaller bubbles,” Ash said on a video on Guinness’ website before his death in 2016.

“The carbon dioxide ones want to escape, the nitrogen ones don’t. Each bubble that goes up is gradually dissolving a bit of the beer.”

Eoghain Clavin, Senior Guinness Brewery Ambassador, explained to gasworld, “At Guinness, we have been brewing dark and roasty stouts and porters for well over 200 years. For the majority of that time, our beers were naturally carbonated with carbon dioxide created during the fermentation process. Our stouts and porters would then be shipped in wooden barrels to Guinness drinkers all around the globe. The carbonation level of the beer in these barrels would vary depending on its age; a barrel with older beer would have a lower carbonation level than that of a fresher barrel. The practice of blending beer from separate casks required a talented bartender and led to great inconsistency.”

Clavin continued, “So, Guinness set about solving the perfect pour problem. They challenged their brewers to create a beer. The challenge lasted for decades until a talented mathematician turned brewer named Michael Ash joined Guinness in the 1950s that the solution was found. After four years of experimentation with Guinness stouts, he discovered that the answer was to be found in nitrogen. By mixing 75% nitrogen and 25% carbon dioxide and dissolving it into the beer, he conceived a method of stabilising Guinness stout while also inventing the first-ever nitrogenated beverage. The beer was unlike the carbonated Guinness known by so many at the time. Ash’s Guinness was velvet on the lips, with a creamy head over a roasted barley body in every glass from the first sip to the last drop. He had created Guinness Draught Stout.”

Does Guinness plan on bringing out any more nitro beverages to meet the growing appetite for nitro-infused beers?

“All our new beers, including our nitro beers, are brewed at our two experimental breweries called the Open Gate Breweries,” Clavin said.

“One is located at St. James’s Gate in Dublin and the other resides proudly on this side of the Atlantic in Baltimore, Maryland. They are the home of innovation for Guinness and have already released limited runs of multiple new nitro brews including Nitro Vanilla Cream Ale, Mint Chocolate Stout, Tangerine Cream Ale, Nitro Mocha Stout, Nitro Strawberry Porter, and Oatmeal Stout to name but a few. Guinness Nitro IPA was another such innovation. Brewed in Dublin and exported to the US for a brief run, Guinness Nitro IPA continues to be very popular in continental Europe and the UK.”

In the 1980s, Guinness claims to have invented the widget, that brought the qualities of draft nitrogenation to canned beer. The widget is a small plastic ball filled with nitrogen that releases upon the opening of a can, creating the same “surge and settle” effect of a nitrogenated tap.

Guinness also brought its Guinness-style nitrogenation to an India Pale Ale (IPA), called Guinness™ Nitro IPA , five years ago.

Guinness is not the only stout on the market and Colorado-based Left Hand Brewing Company introduced its Milk Stout Nitro in a bottle in 2011. Left Hand claims to be the first American and craft brewery to master the science of bottling a nitrogen beer without a widget. In 2017, Left Hand brought out Milk Stout Nitro in nitro widget cans.

Wider variety

Brands are increasingly exploring the market’s appetite for nitrogenated beverages. Budweiser Nitro Gold was introduced earlier this year, a lager which is infused with nitrogen gas to give it a “silky-smooth finish,” according to Anheuser-Busch. Unlike other nitrogen gas infused beers, Budweiser Nitro Gold does not require a widget and instead the advice is to flip the can three times before pouring, so to infuse the nitrogen gas bubbles throughout the beer.

“We’re very excited about the introduction of Budweiser Nitro Reserve because it meets the growing demand for premium products and the rise in popularity of nitro infused beverages,” said Ricardo Marques, VP Marketing Core & Value Brands at Anheuser-Busch.

Boston-based Samuel Adams introduced three nitro beers four years ago (Nitro White Ale, Nitro IPA, and Nitro Coffee Stout). Sam Adams founder and brewer Jim Koch said, “We started experimenting with nitro beers in the mid 1990s when we brewed a Boston Cream Ale and over the years, I’d estimate we brewed more than 50 beer styles and worked with 200 recipes to ultimately create these three unique beers. We quickly discovered that you can’t just put any beer on nitro. We needed to develop recipes where nitrogen was the unexpected fifth ingredient and brought out the desired flavor profile of the brew.

“For example, with the IPA, the lack of carbonation reduces the perceived bitterness by cutting the acidity (carbonation produces carbonic acid on the tongue, nitrogen doesn’t) so without the carbonation we really had to ramp up the amount of hops we used. We’re excited for drinkers to finally get a chance to try our Nitro beers and experience the cascade – which is like a science experiment in a glass.”

As nitrogen is mostly insoluble in beer, the resulting bubbles are smaller and create the creamy texture of nitro beers. Nitrogen helps to extract the sweet flavors in beer, while beers that use CO2 generally have larger bubbles, a more pronounced acidity and prickly carbonated feel. It is not just beer-makers jumping on the nitrogen-infused trend: PepsiCo last year unveiled Nitro Pepsi, a nitrogen infused cola, which the company claimed was the first-ever nitrogen-infused soft drink.

Nitro coffee

Infusing coffee with nitrogen makes it smoother and thicker. It is created when coffee is cold-brewed and then stored under nitrogen and dispensed from a stout tap like those at a bar. The nitrogen gas is released through a pressurised valve with tiny holes and, as high pressure forces the cold brew through the valve it creates a creamy effect like a Guinness. Earlier this year, coffeehouse chain Starbucks and PepsiCo launched ready-to-drink (RTD) Starbucks® Nitro Cold Brew, now available in a pre-packaged format that consumers can purchase anywhere, after it introduced the drink to all its stores in 2019. Starbucks’ rival Costa Coffee also has its own nitro infused coffee, and the global cold brew coffee market size was valued at $522.9m in 2020 and is expected to register a CAGR of 25.1% from 2019 to 2025, according to Grand View Research.

Is the popularity of nitrogenated beverages, driven by the popularity of craft beer, nitro coffee and even soft drinks, a threat to carbonated beverages?

Chuck Skypeck, Technical Brewing Projects Manager at Colorado-based Brewers Association, a not-for-profit trade group dedicated to small and independent US brewers, does not think so.

“We are not seeing increased demand for nitrogenised beers,” Skypeck told gasworld. “My opinion, [numbers of nitro infused beers are] level at best. Nitrogenised beers remain a very small part of the US beer market. Much more CO2 is used in processing beer as opposed to carbonating beers. We know of a number of breweries that are looking at the use of nitrogen in certain processes, such as tank purging and evacuation of air from bottles or cans before packaging, but I am not aware of any large movement towards nitrogenising beers. We are seeing brewers explore spunding [a process often used by lager brewers to naturally carbonate their beer], bottle conditioning and other means of naturally carbonating their beers.”

No threat to CO2 demand

In fact, based on conversations and observations in the industry, Skypeck reckons with the rise in seltzers, which are typically more carbonated than average beers, CO2 use among some beverage creators is rising.

“Seltzers typically have higher volumes of CO2 than most beers, so more CO2 is used to carbonate the beers and tank pressures are higher (more CO2) during packaging to keep the higher volume of CO2 in solution,” Skypeck said.

“The Brewers Association hasn’t quantified this but the higher way you get more carbonation is to use more CO2 both in the beer and in processing / packaging.”

Even with shortages of CO2, caused by the global pandemic earlier this year, has not led to brewers switching to nitrogen-infused beers, according to Skypeck.

“Nothing indicates that nitrogen infused beers are growing substantially due to the CO2 shortage,” Skypeck said.

“In fact, with the current can shortage in the US, brewers are concentrating on core brands, brewing fewer new products and reducing the number of brands they offer. Brewers are not inclined to change core brands to nitrogen infused brands because of the dramatic change in flavour profile. Consumer trends are towards seeking consistency and familiar brands.”