Ask Mr. Wizard

Bottling Nitro Beers

TroubleShooting

Chris Whitlock • Pompano Beach, Florida asks,
Q

My brew club recently brewed a dry stout (Guinness clone), while using the recipe in the May–June 2005 issue of BYO. It came out very close to target and is now on tap with “beer mix” gas (C02/N2) and a proper stout faucet. In fact, it came out well enough that we would like to enter this in a local competition, but we’re not sure how best to bottle this without losing the nitrogen generated smoothness. Since the little Guinness “draught” bottle and can widgets are not available to homebrewers, is it possible to achieve the same effect another way? We have a counter-pressure filler, but do we use straight CO2 to fill, or should we use the beer mix gas? If it’s not possible to achieve the nitrogen effect, how do people properly enter a dry stout such as this in a competition? Thanks for the help!

A

I have never shied away from taking pot shots at competitions. I brew beer to please myself and if by chance I get lucky and win a medal in a competition, great! If not, I don’t get too upset. The problem with competitions, in my opinion, is that their very nature forces beer to conform to something. The Great American Beer Festival is run by the same folks who have AHA sponsored events and they have successfully added enough categories that most beers can be entered into some category. And if the beer is totally wacky there are now special wacky categories like “Experimental Beer” and “Vegetable and Herb Beer.” However, draft beers sadly do not have a home at these competitions.

It’s probably that most brewers would not want to ship a whole keg of beer to simply pour a few samples for the judges and the nature of blind panels does not allow judges to walk around to booths with you and your buddies pouring your beer. Whatever the excuse for not having draft beer categories in beer competitions, I don’t like the fact that they are omitted! Techniques to properly nitrogenate a beer are tricky and the skill required to transform flat beer into the mesmerizing elixir that flows from a stout faucet is worthy of judging. I mean . . . there are even barista competitions for the folk who pour espresso drinks at cafes!

I am sad to say that there is no method that I know of that allows homebrewers and small scale commercial brewers to package nitrogenated beers so that they pour as they do when on tap. Guinness spent boat loads of money developing the widget for canned and bottled Guinness. Other breweries followed suit and developed their own version of the widget and some, I believe, paid Guinness a fee to use the technology. Conceptually, these little devices are fairly easy to understand but the real challenge is getting the device into the package and then filling the bottle or can so that when opened and poured it behaves like draft beer.

Some things in life are just not fair and this is one example of true injustice. Brewers who enter beer into dry stout categories use Plan B; they carbonate their stouts. I hate this option because beer brewed to be dispensed using mixed gas tastes totally different when carbonated. When I formulate beer for mixed gas dispense, I typically increase bitterness and down play the character from special malts like crystal that give sweetness. I like to put dry, bitter beers on mixed gas so that the beer in the pint is balanced. Take the same beer and carbonate it — an unbalanced beer is the result.

I don’t have much sage advice to offer other than to be your own judge. Judge your beer against some of your favorite draft stouts in your area. How does your beer pour? Is the foam too thin or thick after pouring or is it just right? Does the roast barley flavor come across burnt and acrid or is it assertive yet pleasant? Does the beer have a nice rich mouthfeel or is it watery? By comparing various attributes of your stout to commercial examples like Guinness and Murphy’s you will know whether you have a winner or not. We brew an excellent dry stout at Springfield Brewing Company, but I have no outside affirmation of this. It’d be nice to have some bling to hang on the wall, but at the end of the day I don’t care because I know it’s good, our customers know it’s good and no medal is going to change that fact!

Response by Ashton Lewis.