From stouts to porters and recently IPAs and pale ales, nitro beers are growing in popularity and most beer-focused bars have one or more taplines dedicated to the style and its distinctly heavy, creamy pour. What’s far less common, is finding that nitro in packaged form at the liquor store. Guinness has long done it and Sam Adams introduced a line of cans in early 2016, using a plastic widget in a can to release the gas. Few companies have bottled nitro beers because the technology has to be mastered in-house, and it’s a delicate and hard to perfect process.
Colorado’s Left Hand Brewing Co. figured out a way in 2011 and it turned a popular draft beer into a popular home purchase. Left Hand is now set to introduce three styles of (non-nitro) beer in cans this winter, with more styles to come in early 2017. Chief Operating Officer Chris Lennert describes how Left Hand has become “the nitro brewery” and what that means for their identity. It’s something they embrace, hosting Nitro Fest in November each year.
Paste: When you started developing nitro beers did you think it would have this kind of impact on the brand?
Chris Lennert: Honestly, we were hoping that it would. We’d been doing Milk Stout Nitro on draft for eight or nine years at least. We launched in bottles in 2011 during Great American Beer Fest, five years ago. We were the first American brewery to do it in a package form without a widget and it really took off.
Once we put it in package form where people could have that experience at home, I think people were pretty blown away by it. I’m shocked that other breweries are taking as long to do it. There are a couple in bottle format and in cans, but that wasn’t their technology. There’s a little difference in how we approached it. We created [the bottles] ourselves and it took us a couple years.
It’s been a really positive impact. Back in the day, meaning 2011, people were already surprised that our number one beer was a stout and, with nitro, it took it to a different level.
Paste: Why did you develop your own bottles instead of can widgets?
CL: We thought about creating our own widgets. The test was all over the board for us, but we had smart people in our packaging department that took it as their mission to make it happen. It’s not something easy to figure out and that’s why a lot of people haven’t done it. We’re pretty proud of what we’ve done and I won’t say we invented it, but it’s kind of like we invented it for American craft brewers, right? I think we brought a lot of attention to the category. When the largest craft brewer in the country comes after us with their own line, I think that’s a sign that you’ve done something right.
We play in bottles so that was what we had to do. Guinness had a patent and Ball just introduced that can widget a year ago. You have to pour it out because there’s not a widget in it. You’re not going to get that same creaminess unless you pour the beer into a glass. Regardless of what package it’s in, without a widget you have to pour it out of the glass.
There are pros on cons to both, but if you talk to a lot of brewers they’re going to want you to pour it into a glass to experience it. For us it works in the bottle. We want you to experience the full effect just like you’re in a bar, but you can do it at home.
Paste: How has the nitro environment been changing?
CL: The rotation of handles in the market place has been going on for some time. Five years ago there were 1700 breweries and today we’re at 4300. Five years ago our nitro handles were quite sticky because there weren’t a lot of offerings out there. Now, I think we are in the rotation along with everything else. I see more and more people putting nitro on the handle, which I’m all for. It brings attention to the category.
There are lovers and haters of nitro beers in general. That’s what I love about craft beer. Find your happy. Find what you can enjoy.
Paste: Do you suffer from the “new is better” phenomenon in craft beer culture?
CL: I get that.
I give our entire staff a lot of credit. There’s a lot of nitro beers out there today and Milk Stout Nitro is a beer that continually stands out. It’s not a novelty nitro. We do Wake Up Nitro, the seasonal Hard Wired Nitro. To us, certain styles do really well with nitro, some don’t. IPA is a great example. You’ve spent all this money to put a huge amount of hops in and then you strip them right out when you nitrogenate it. But that’s our point of view and not everybody’s.
If you look at our beers on nitro in draft and package, they’re doing well. I think people realize we helped create the excitement.
Paste: Do you think it’s viewed as a fad or a gimmick?
CL: I think some people view it that way. We do both Milk Stout and Milk Stout Nitro. To each his own. When you’ve got so many breweries coming after it and our Milk Stout Nitro is continually growing, I don’t see it as a fad. I think we’re just at the forefront.
Nitro is a difficult thing to figure out. I’ve had people call and ask, “Can you help me out?” I will talk to any brewery, but that’s one thing we really don’t share.
Paste: Are you “The Nitro Brewery” now?
CL: We get that. When we introduced Hard Wired Nitro, it fit right where we are but people still love Good Juju or Polestar Pilsner. We’ve been around for 23 years, so people are excited to try Black Jack Porter or Good Juju or Polestar Pilsner, and we just launched American IPA Extrovert. We’re making good craft beer and, at the end of the day, with 4300 breweries I have one shot if you’ve never heard of us. If you don’t like it, why would you ever come back to us?