Event Recap | Left Hand’s Nitro Fest Brings Beer to the Big Tent
Chances are most readers of PorchDrinking.com have been to scores of beer festivals, with many—while still awesome—fairly indistinguishable from the other. Left Hand’s Nitro Fest, now in its fourth year, is not one of those.
Imagine some of the world’s smoothest, rarest beers coupled with a psychedelic circus and a legion of hardcore, costumed fans on a warm fall night in Longmont, CO and you’ll get an idea of the experience.
Hosted by Colorado heavyweight Left Hand Brewing, it’s billed as the world’s only beer festival devoted exclusively to beers injected with nitrogen (as opposed to carbon dioxide, as is the case with most beer). Backing up the “international” moniker, Left Hand this year invited breweries from Ireland, South Korea, China and Japan to showcase their nitro creations alongside more than 40 breweries from across the U.S.
Before I continue, here’s a (very) quick primer on just what, exactly, the festival was created to feature. Nitro beers are perhaps best known thanks to Guinness, with its cascading bubbles and smooth, creamy mouthfeel. Those tiny bubbles are due to the fact that nitrogen is far less soluble in water than CO2, which makes for greater head stability and foam retention. Most nitro beers are comprised of around 70 percent nitrogen and 30 percent CO2.
Putting the chemistry lesson aside, a brewer’s choice of gas has distinct implications for beer drinkers. Nitrogen adds body and a creamy texture a beer. Nitro beers tend to taste almost sweeter in contrast to their CO2-powered brethren, which have much more of a bite when they hit your tongue, contributing to perceived bitterness. That’s a large part of the reason most nitro beers you see on tap or in stores are predominantly from the Stout universe, as opposed to hop-forward offerings.
But attendees of Nitro Fest weren’t interested in sticking to tradition. Instead, they flouted it with styles as diverse as IPAs, fruit beers, sours, barleywine and even ciders.
Broken Compass’ Coffee Chili Pale Ale was one such example. “The biggest reason we picked it [for Nitro Fest] is because it’s unique,” said Brandon Smith, head brewer at the Breckenridge-based brewery. “You mostly think of dark, malty beers on nitro.”
(That said, with its infusion of coffee and the fuller body from a nitro pour, I could have sworn I was drinking a darker beer if I closed my eyes.)
Tokyo-based DevilCraft was pouring Escape, a pina colada pale ale, alongside a more traditional nitro beer in its Left-Handed Devil Mocha Java Milk Stout. Escape played particularly well on nitro, bringing out the milky creaminess of the lactose, and tropical flavors from pineapples that were soaked in two types of rum before being added to the bright tank.
The event marked DevilCraft’s international festival debut—a decision that was a no-brainer, according to brewery co-founder Jason Koehler.
“We had heard of Nitro Fest in passing and you see pictures of it and it looks like an incredible experience,” Koehler said. “This is not like any beer festival that would exist in Japan or any one that I’ve ever been to in the United States, so being invited by Left Hand as our first international festival we’ve ever participated in was something we just couldn’t pass up.”
I found it notable that Metalman Brewing, based in Ireland, had never made a nitro beer before. Co-owner Grainne Walsh told me they had “danced around” the idea in the past but shied away, in part due to fears of coming off as hackneyed (you know, given that other Irish brewery known for a stout on nitro).
“It came down to either our Smoked Chili Porter or our Amber IPA and I felt a Porter might be a bit of a cliche coming from Ireland,” Walsh said, adding that she was so pleased with the nitro version of their Ironmonger IPA that the brewery may start offering it on nitro regularly.
Great Leap Brewing of Beijing took their best-selling beer, Honey Ma Gold, and injected it with nitro. Brewed with honey and Szechuan peppercorn, the spices were able to shine through, even without the added bite of CO2, while not too overpowering.
Of course, the festival was awash in styles more traditionally suited to nitro. Take Nitro Merlin, Firestone Walker’s Velvet Merlin Oatmeal Stout brewed with lactose, which created a nice milky flavor. And speaking of milk, New Holland Brewing’s nitro version of its Dragon’s Milk Barrel-Aged Stout with mocha and mint tasted like a milkshake (in a very good way).
Falling temperatures make November a perfect time to showcase heavier and fuller-bodied nitro beers. Indeed, many of those on tap at Nitro Fest took the concept of “winter warmer” to the next level.
Elevation’s Horchata Spiced Imperial Porter was one such beer. While it’s not normally served on nitro, the Poncha Springs-based brewery chose wisely, with the cinammon flavors in particular really coming out as the beer warmed up. Likewise, the El Jefe cinammon stout from 4 Noses Brewing of Broomfield had a pleasing spice finish.
The biggest beer I tasted all evening was courtesy of Dogfish Head. The Delaware-based brewery was serving up a nitro version of its Oak-Aged Vanilla World Wide Stout, which at 18 percent tasted like an after-dinner port. Thanks to the smooth mouthfeel of nitro, however, the vanilla was able to come through and there wasn’t an overly acidic taste despite the high ABV.
Not to be outdone by anyone, Left Hand had seven different nitro beers on tap. Beyond the mainstays that put them on the nitro map, the hosts poured a delicious Chai Milk Stout featuring chai brewed on Left Hand’s pilot system and a Black Currant Cream Ale that was pleasantly balanced.
For nitro novices, Left Hand was the first brewery to bottle a nitro beer without a widget back in 2011, eventually expanding their bottle offerings beyond Milk Stout Nitro to include Wake Up Dead Russian Imperial Stout and Sawtooth Amber Ale on nitro. Left Hand’s “Pour Hard” campaign encourages beer drinkers to pour 180 degrees from the bottle to the glass in order to achieve the perfect waterfall of tiny bubbles. In July, the company started offering its Milk Stout Nitro in cans (the first widget cans produced in the U.S., according to Left Hand).
Given the canning news, I asked—perhaps foolishly—if the company had any plans to discontinue bottling nitro beers at some point in the future.
“The bottle got us here,” said Josh Breckel, Left Hand Field Quality Manager. “You can’t let ‘Pour Hard’ go. It’s who we are.”
While it was the delicious and sometimes funky array of nitro beers that stole the show, I’d be remiss if I didn’t stress the fact that these tastings all took place against an “electronic fantasyland”-themed backdrop of fire spinners, Cirque du Soleil-like acrobatics and, later in the evening, a performance by the electronic jam band Lotus. It was weird as hell—and a fitting atmosphere for the unapologetically offbeat nitro beers on tap.