The Guinness “Draft Problem” and Invention of Nitro Beer

The Guinness “Draft Problem” and Invention of Nitro Beer

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that we are all feeling a bit numb after a full calendar year of pandemic times. This time last year, I was canceling our St. Patrick’s Day & Irish Beer event at the beer shop I ran. My natural fear of any event I plan being a bust allowed me to secretly appreciate the need to cancel the event. A year later, however, I am exhausted by the lack of events. I don’t have any particular fondness for St. Patrick’s Day: Chicago dive bars back home use it as an excuse to charge a ridiculous cover fee, and in Ireland the combination of the lackluster parades and biting March wind and rain make your average Paddy’s Day a true test of endurance. But, I’m back in Ireland and desperate to visit a pub, so I am suddenly feeling festive.

An average of 13 million pints of Guinness are enjoyed on a normal pandemic-free St. Patrick’s Day. Though I’m not entirely surprised, the number is still a bit mortifying. As I can’t haunt a pub or shiver by a parade this year, I choose to focus on the innovative impact Ireland has made on the beer world. Like yeah, I know. Guinness alone is the pinnacle. However, I want to take a moment to focus on what makes Guinness so memorable, and has in turn inspired breweries across the world: nitro beer.

Guinness Stout was too lively (cue The Pointer Sisters) to be dispensed with only C02, like many other draft beers that gained popularity in Britain at the time in the 1950s. When draft Guinness was first served, it was actually poured from two different casks. The first pour came from a high-pressure cask that provided mostly froth that would slowly settle into a thick white head, and then a second pour came from a low-pressured cask to fill the glass with a smooth dark pour. It was a complicated process, to say the least. Those at Guinness referred to this as the “draft problem”. 

Photo Credit: Guinness

Enter British mathematician and eyebrow icon Michael Ash who, after 4 years of non-stop research, came up with the idea to dispense Guinness using nitrogen to combat its lively nature. C02 makes large bubbles while nitrogen makes small bubbles, he realized. The nitrogen bubbles essentially don’t want to escape the beer, and in turn dissolve into the beer, making it smooth and thick. Thanks to Ash, the first nitro beer was born.

A typical nitro beer contains around 70% nitrogen and 30% carbon dioxide. While nitro is most often associated with stouts and porters, nitro has been applied to a variety of different beer styles. Guinness US has even released a Nitro IPA, which I demand be sent to my door immediately am eager to try. Guinness would later ask how they could take a beer that was designed to be poured by draft, and serve it in a can. That’s where the “widget”, a small nitrogen-filled ball that surges the can with bubbles when opened, comes in. Roughly the size of a ping pong ball, it has allowed nitro beer to be enjoyed at home since the 1970s.

The nitro beer has weaseled its way into countless breweries, and we have Guinness to thank for it. Using this article to justify an afternoon pint, I’m drinking the Limited Edition #23 Nitro Stout from Hope Beer, a favorite brewery of mine located in Dublin. I have met the lads brewing there a few times. Not only do they lead a great tour but they also deliver consistently good beers. This Nitro is no exception. The can doesn’t feature a “widget” like the Guinness cans. The Hope beer is, however, creamy and smooth due to the addition of oats, while the flavor teeters nicely between flavors of roasted coffee and chocolate.

As usual, I suggest you look to your local brewers to find a nitro to celebrate this St. Patricks Day with. This past year has been challenging for both you and your favorite breweries. Meanwhile, I will be here daydreaming of crowded parades, smeared face-paint, and frothy pints. Regardless, grab a beer, blast your favorite Irish music (The Cranberries or bust), and Sláinte!

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