Cover the craft beer industry for a while, and you’ll get used to the cycle of fads coming and going. You’ll see the hot new hop varieties explode into popularity and then morph to the next thing as the previous variety becomes impossible to acquire. You’ll see new fruits come into the vogue, or new techniques for infusing flavors into brews. You’ll even see fads in terms of presentation. It’s a cyclical process, but one where changes come and go very quickly.
For the last few years, “going nitro” has been one of those fads—a trend that has more or less passed by this point, actually, which explains why we’re now seeing it from a “big boy” company like Diageo, which owns Guinness. All that’s left is an Anheuser Busch nitro lager, and we’ll have come completely full circle.
Not that I have anything in particular against nitrogenated beer. When applied as an alternative to carbon dioxide, the resulting beers tend to be creamier, with smaller, denser bubbles that form a more compact head of foam. This process is of course responsible for the signature density and cascading bubbles in a pint of Guinness stout, as it similarly is in other Irish dry stout competitors such as Beamish and Murphy’s. Applied in certain styles, nitrogenation can amplify certain aspects of flavor or simply texture in pleasurable ways. But there’s a time for nitrogen, and a place. There are styles it’s naturally suited to, and styles where it’s not. And IPA? Nitrogen and IPA don’t mix very well.
Of course, that didn’t stop Guinness from crafting “Nitro IPA,” their first-ever India pale ale release. You can almost see their exact train of thinking, as someone in the company made the executive decision that Guinness was missing out on a slice of that sweet IPA bankroll by not having one as part of their year-round portfolio. “But how do we make it identifiable with our other core products?”, asks a marketing guru. “Simple,” says another. “We just throw a nitrogen widget in there. People love Guinness on nitro. They’ll probably love any other beer on nitro too.”
Unfortunately, that’s not exactly how things work for this brew. Aromatically, it actually starts off not too badly, with an admittedly unusual bouquet of woodsy and floral hops and muted impressions of vanilla and toffee. As is usually the case with the nitrogenated head, though, the aromatics are muddled and confused. This is something I’ve also experienced in just about any other American brewery that has attempted a nitrogenated IPA—the head on these beers is simply not conducive to a great hop aroma, and that’s what the marketplace expects of something labeled “IPA.” Smelling this blind, I would probably hazard a guess that it was an English pale ale, or perhaps an ESB. Also odd is the ruddy amber color, which looks rather unappealingly like a tan cappuccino after being poured and waiting for the bubbles to cascade and settle. Just look at the difference between the below and above photos. Yeesh:
On the palate, you immediately get the creamier, denser consistency, which once again kills most of the hop flavor. There’s some woodsy/grassy hop character and a bit of caramel malt, but it comes across in such a bland, low-intensity way that it seems thin and watery despite the mouthfeel. You can easily see what they were going for, but it’s hard picturing the drinker who would really enjoy the beer and want to return to it.
This is, after all, meant to be a representative in the IPA market, and when a drinker sees the letters “IPA” on a beer in 2015, it conjures certain expectations. We expect clean, intense aromatics. We expect no shortage of flavor. We typically expect a higher ABV than 5.8%, although to be fair this is pretty closely in line with the British precedent that they’re presumably trying to respect.
All in all, though, it’s difficult to imagine Guinness Nitro IPA fitting the bill of what any established fan of IPA is looking for. Perhaps the company is banking on it being an “introductory” beer to those who don’t already drink IPA, but that seems like an unrealistically limiting demographic. It’s just not terribly interesting beer. It stops short of being actively unpleasant, but the enjoyment of it has been hamstrung by its own nitrogenated gimmick.
Brewery: Guinness, Ltd.
City: St. James Gate, Dubline, Ireland
Availability: 12 oz cans /w nitro widget
Jim Vorel is Paste’s news editor, and he’d really prefer nitrogen to stay out of his IPAs from now on if possible. You can follow him on Twitter.