Nitrogenated beers haven’t been around for a long time in the grand scheme of things. Guinness was the first brewery to add “nitro” to their kegs in 1932. Fans of that famous Irish dry stout will be familiar with its iconic cascade. When Guinness is poured into a glass, it forms a chaotic mixture of light and dark brown waves that slowly organizes — –darkness spreading up from the bottom while light brown waves culminate in a dense, creamy head. Guinness was the first beer I drank that seemed like a performance dessert, with notes of coffee and chocolate, plus a head that I actually enjoyed. Now the “nitro” performance is taking place in glasses of craft beer and cold-brewed coffee in pubs across Korea bridging the gap between these two popular drinks.
Nitrogen gas, N2, changes the mouthfeel of drinks because it doesn’t dissolve in water, leaving tons of microbubbles in the glass that give your coffee or stout a very rich, creamy, velvety texture with a tight, frothy head. As a result, even a glass of coffee can now look like a pint of Guinness.
The nitro coffee trend has been picking up steam in the States lately with companies like Stumptown offering nitro on tap and in to-go cans. Craftworks founder Dan Vroon discovered nitro coffee at the 2014 Craft Brewers’ Conference in Denver, Colorado and fell in love. Along with former Craftworks sales manager Cayden Choe, they spent a year starting up Bruworks, Korea’s first nitro coffee company.
Most nitro coffee is cold-brewed, what Koreans call “Dutch Coffee,” because it allows the coffee to be stored in kegs and poured from a tap like beer. Cold-brewed coffee also has a cleaner and less acidic taste compared to regular coffee. The nitro simply makes cold-brewed coffee even sweeter and gives it a texture that simulates cream. People enjoy it in different ways, but experts suggest not pouring it onto ice which can ruin the beautiful cascade effect. Most importantly, one should try it without adding milk or sugar! Many sugar and cream fans find they can enjoy nitro coffee simply black.
In beer, nitro highlights the malt, making it sweeter and roastier, but loses the hop bite and aroma. Therefore, most bars use nitro for dark beers like stouts and porters. Interestingly, the dark malts of these beers give them a roasty, coffee-like flavor and thus are sometimes brewed with coffee, anyway.
“The main flavor similarity between the two is the delicious roasted flavor of the coffee beans and the roasted barley malt in the beer,” notes Bruworks’ Choe. “In fact, many people who first try Nitro Coffee say it reminds them of their first Guinness!” Choe also notes how playing with different beans and roasts is akin to brewers playing with different malts and grains.
Daekyung Moon, manager of the brewing company Pongdang, also compares the “smoother, richer mouthfee”l” of nitro stout to Guinness. Ryan Blocker, brewer at Galmegi, helped me understand the science behind nitro. He explained that by using less CO2 to pressurize the beer, nitro beers have less carbonic acid leading to a less sour and tingly sip, while leaving a dense and long-lasting head.
Both nitro coffee and stout are popping up in more and more places in Korea. Stouts are getting the nitro treatment at places like Pong Dang (in Garosu-gil) and the Gwangan Taphouse (in Busan). Craftworks has served their Seorak Oatmeal Stout on nitro since 2012. As such, it’s no surprise that Bruworks nitro coffee can be found in many places that serve craft beer given their unofficial relationship with Craftworks. Perhaps one day we’ll see a cross-promotion Craftworks Nitro Coffee Ale, although Bruworks insists they could collaborate with any Korean craft brewery. One thing’s for sure, nitro’s rising popularity is bridging the gap between coffee and craft beer lovers.
Rob Shelley writes about craft beer and keeps a Korean Beer Directory and Upcoming Events page at www.CraftBeerAsia.com/Korea.
Bruworks nitro coffee can be found in pubs like Heaven for a “G”, Maloneys, and Craftworks. Visit www.bru.works for more info.
Nitro craft beer can be found in places like Pong Dang and Gwangan Taphouse.