Gas Panic!


New Experimentation and Innovation with Nitrogen-Infused Canadian Beer

By: James Burt

Beyond the usual beer ingredients—malt, hops, water—many breweries are now making changes to the gas components of their beers. This has lead to new, inspired brewing results in the Canadian beer marketplace, as well as prospective changes to beer packaging that weren’t well known before.

“I was cycling in Breckinridge, Colorado with some other brewers,” said Calabogie  Brewing Company’s president and founder Mike Wagner from Calabogie, Ontario, near Ottawa. “I talked with them and took a recipe in particular that involved using nitrogen and how it creates a smoother beer style. From there, I came up with our Brown Cow Milk Stout, a nitrogen-infused beer we have had out now and had success with. It’s got a special, smooth texture that’s unique.”

Many beer drinkers are familiar with nitrogen used in particular beers, primarily in porters and stouts. Ireland’s famed dry stout Guinness has used nitrogen to provide its smooth drinking texture since the 1960’s, both in draft and, thanks to plastic, nitrogen-infused widgets, in cans and some bottles. While the use of nitrogen was limited to Guinness and select few other European beer brands, the use of nitrogen has travelled abroad and now become an experimental ingredient in Canadian independent brews and breaking some of the traditional rules of beer gas-infusion along the way.

“When I worked at Spinnakers [Brewery, of Victoria, British Columbia] in the late nineties, I used to brew nitro stouts for St. Patrick’s Day,” said Phillips Beer’s Matt Lockhart from Victoria, British Columbia. “I really enjoyed both brewing and drinking them. Now, at Phillips, we’ve been canning now for six years, and it was one of the things we started thinking of shortly after we fired up our canning machines. But once we started figuring it out, we fell in love with the idea of doing a nitro porter, making a richer, fuller bodied beer than a dry stout, and something a bit different from what was already available.”

Nitrogen-infused beers tend to begin with specific recipe necessities, much like their more traditional India pale ale or lager counterparts.

“In terms of brewing process for our Odyssey Nitro Porter, it is a single infusion mash, and fermented as an ale,” said Lockhart. “We have some unique bits of equipment in our process—we use a mash press in our brew house, which gives us great extract and flexibility with non-traditional grains, and a centrifuge instead of a whirlpool, allowing us to overload the hops in the kettle.”

Once these beers are completely brewed and ready to be canned or bottled, the nitrogen aspect of the beer comes into play. The influence of modern science into the more complex brewing process of nitrogen-infused beers cannot be underestimated at this stage, Many modern brewers have developed their own techniques to add the nitrogen to their canned products that were not previously available.

“What some brewers don’t realize is that nitrogenating beer is a packaging matter, not really a brewing one,” said Wagner. “I came to it from my work in the pharmaceutical industry where we used a nitrogen ‘doser’ that was used to get dissolved oxygen out of pharmaceutical solutions.  When we were doing the first batches of milk stout, we brought a doser into the brewery one day and worked to figure out how to can using it. You need to dose the cans fast—it’s all got to be packaged and sent out to sell. But we managed to come up with our own dosing method. Later, we got help from Jeff Rogowsky from Sessions Craft Canning to do this during a whole production of cans. Now we can dose the cans regularly and, in the process, roll out the stout in a regular production format.”

Wagner went further to express his enthusiasm for more experimentation with nitrogen-infusion in more beer recipes and what possibilities can exist for new concoctions.

“It’s exciting. I’m one of the first guys to do this, but not the last. There’s new technology involved and there’s a good bright future of people nitrogenating so many beers. You’re likely going to get nitrogen infusion in other beer types and new equipment to help with this on the market thereafter. It’s a good game changer for the industry.”