Sam Adams founder Jim Koch has been a leader in beer innovation for 31 years, and he's not done yet. The wily brewer who brought us both the groundbreaking, now-ubiquitous Boston Lager, and the nearly 30-percent alcohol Utopias, has made nitrogen-carbonated beer his next frontier for craft beer.
Nitro beer has long been the domain of Guinness. You can picture the Irish stout's slow, deliberate pour at a bar, and the bubbling widget in a can or bottle. But despite the appeal and success of the black ale — the third most popular European import in the U.S. — few brewers have swapped out their CO2 tanks for nitrogen carbonation. In the American craft world, you find occasionally Irish-style stouts and experimental IPAs on tap. Colorado's Left Hand Brewing stood out as the one brewery with notable success, serving nitro versions of its Sawtooth ESB and Milk Stout. But now you'll also find the three new Sam Adams nitro beers on tap and sold by the four-pack of cans on store shelves.
"This is white space in craft brewing," says Koch. "Almost nobody is doing this." Considering the U.S. now supports more than 4,200 brewers, finding room to innovate is a tall order. Koch, however, was able to harness Boston Beer's resources to spend three years and "millions" developing nitro-specific recipes and a new canning line. Unlike Left Hand's nitro beers that are packaged with the gas already dissolved, the Sam Adams brews use a Guinness-like widget to pump the beer full of nitrogen when you crack the lid. This creates a much thicker head and, in our opinion, improves the aroma.
More than 100 recipes were tested, and after countless rounds of tasting, the brewery settled on three beers to launch the nitro line: a Belgian-inspired wheat ale, a bold IPA, and a coffee stout — an Irish red ale and a brown almost made the cut. From our early samples, the beers live up to Koch's promise of delivering a new experience on classic styles. Nitrogen-carbonated beers offer two main differences from the standard CO2 brew. First, the lack of CO2 means there's no bite from carbonic acid. Second, the nitrogen bubbles are much smaller than CO2, which presents a beer with a velvety smooth feel when it would otherwise be crisp and bright. Generally speaking, gentle malt flavors dominate while hops are toned down.
The White Ale wheat beer is smooth and bready, and the creamy Coffee Stout drinks pleasantly like an excellent cold-brewed coffee. But the IPA is the surprise standout in the bunch. To counteract the hops-muting nitrogen bubbles, the Sam Adams brewers created a recipe that would — in a CO2 beer — deliver a hugely bitter 100 IBUs (a measure of bitter hop oils in a beer). The Nitro IPA is richly aromatic with pine and grapefruit, but offers a softened bitter finish. As Koch pointed out when introducing the beers, nitrogen doesn't necessarily make a beer better, but it's fun and different — two perfect words to describe the IPA.
The first production batches of Sam Adams Nitro cans are just starting to hit shelves. Currently, only the White Ale is on tap, but the IPA and Coffee Stout will ship out to bars soon. You can use the brewery's online beer finder to locate stores and bars carrying the Nitro line near you.