A recent inquiry from occasional Decibel contributor and Slayer biographer D.X. Ferris gave us the idea for this week's online Brewtal Truth column. Comrade Ferris wanted to know, "Why does bottled Guinness (plain bottles) seem more carbonated to me than canned?" The answer: nitro. The bottled version of Guinness is typically carbonated in the same way as most bottled beers (that aren't bottle conditioned), with CO2. However, the tall boy can versions of Guinness have this nifty little widget inside that releases nitrogen into the beer to give it that creamy mouthfeel you get when you buy a pint at a bar. It's what's responsible for that "cascading" effect you can see when the beer is poured. Beers with nitro don't have that "bubbly" feel that beers with CO2 have. Now, thanks to the geniuses at Colorado's Left Hand Brewing, you can get that same nitro creaminess in a bottle, without a widget. Wake Up Dead Russian Imperial Stout Nitro Left Hand Longmont, Colorado 10.2% ABV
Left Hand actually makes nitro versions of three of their beers: Sawtooth ESB, Milk Stout and a beer that was just made for this column, Wake Up Dead Russian Imperial Stout. Now, the first two brews are, let's say, standard brews of moderate strength. Wake Up Dead, however, is a beast. This is a double-digit brew with incredibly complexity. We have had other similar brews such as North Coast's Old Rasputin on nitro (draft) and we were initially skeptical of what the nitro could bring to an already superlative beer. Whether or not it makes it "better" is subjective, but we can tell you that with a beer like this, that has a significant alcohol content, it does smooth some of the edges. Dangerously so, in fact. The creaminess imbued by the nitro makes these kinds of brews very, uh, gulpable.
What you first need to know about consuming one of these nitro-powered brews is how to pour it properly. As anti-intuitive as it may seem to anyone who has, say, tried to carefully pour a Belgian beer on the side of a tilted glass to keep too much head from foaming up, you want to basically just turn this bottle upside down in the glass and let the beer just gush out. Wait a tick or two after pouring and you'll see the cascading effect. There will also be a velvety foam on top and that first sip will give you shivers. Witness...
Wake Up Dead, like other of its Russian imperial stout ilk, looks like a Guinness, but kicks like a Moscow Mule. The truckloads of malt (and a fair swack of hops) used to brew it give it all kinds of complexity. The first things you notice are the coffee, chocolate and hint of smoke lingering in the background. But then, maybe as it warms a bit, you get some of the fruit notes of dark cherries and raisins. On the finish there's a definite coffee/hops bitterness that cuts the sweetness that initially coats your palate. Yep, the boozy alcohol notes are there, but without the CO2 they somehow seem muted. Whereas some beers of this strength advertise their ABV with a sniff or two, this doesn't reveal it until you start feeling well buzzed half way into a 12 oz. beer. Insidious.
Having tasted the standard version of Wake Up Dead for our book (see below), the nitro version was a revelation. It's dramatically different. We can't say that we necessarily prefer one to the other, but this nitro version is a really mellow way to drink a big-ass beer. And the fineness of the carbonation is actually a nice change. We wouldn't want to drink nitro beers all the time, but for a change of pace, it's damn enjoyable. Many brewpubs and bars will offer a nitro tap or two and we'd definitely suggest you try it just to compare the experience.
Adem Tepedelen's new craft beer book, Decibel Presents the Brewtal Truth Guide to Extreme Beers: An All-Excess Pass to Brewing's Outer Limits, is now available in the Decibel online store.
This Nitro does not go down as smoothly as this week's beer.
We would be remiss if we didn't include this.