By: Cheryl Gray
Some aficionados of nitro-infused beers liken the sensory experience to downing a rich, creamy concoction from a dessert menu. The head of a beer created from nitrogen dosing ranks right up there with whipped cream atop a hot fudge sundae. For the consumer, the reincarnation of this draft beer experience in a single-serve can—and how that beer feels on the palate—is everything.
James Cain knows first-hand the difference that nitro-infused beer products can make for a craft brewery. Cain co-founded Vault Brewing Company in Yardley, Pennsylvania, in 2012. His aesthetic description of a nitro-infused beer rivals any marketing campaign.
“There’s nothing like watching the mesmerizing and physics-defying downward cascade of nitrogen bubbles in a properly nitrogenated and properly poured nitro beer. We are visual creatures—we drink first with our eyes—and the intrinsic beauty of nitrogen as it performs its brief dance down the sides of our glass is a special moment and sets the stage for a great tasting product to follow.”
Experts say that smoother, palate-pleasing attribute is the result of the smaller bubbles produced when infusing beer with nitrogen rather than carbon dioxide gas, which produces larger bubbles. For the craft beer maker, liquid nitrogen (LN2) plays a host of multiple roles in the industry, not the least of which is the consistency of product that cryogenic nitrogen systems can produce.
In addition to attracting customers who enjoy the draft beer experience of a nitrogen-infused product, LN2 also helps to protect product shelf life. Nitrogen replaces the oxygen in the headspace of the beer container. While oxygen is important to brewing beer, it only takes a small amount inside a can or bottle to ruin the finished product, destroying taste and cutting shelf life. By contrast, nitrogen extends shelf life, leading to a potential increase in sales since breweries can widen distribution and create a larger footprint in the marketplace.
Reduced shipping costs is another benefit to nitrogen-dosed beer. Infusing nitrogen pressurizes the can, and, as a result, it is lighter, sturdier and easier to store and ship because all of the oxygen is removed.
Vacuum Barrier Corporation is one company helping its craft brewery clients achieve both product protection and popularity. The cryogenic engineering firm, located just outside of Boston, Massachusetts, has been in business since 1958 and has a national and global presence, providing local support for its customers worldwide. VBC supplies custom-crafted cryogenic piping and machinery for its clients using nitrogen in multiple applications, including those for craft breweries.
VBC has partnered with both large and craft breweries for more than 30 years with the aim, it says, of improving existing beverages, while at the same time, creating new beverage products. Dana Muse is VBC’s International Technical Sales Engineer.
“Currently, VBC provides Nitrodoser liquid nitrogen dosing equipment to be used for three different applications: reducing oxygen levels to preserve quality and increase shelf life; pressurizing non-carb or low-carb beverages to provide strength; and stability to the package and nitrogenating beers for a smooth, creamy head,” he says. “If using an automated filler, the Nitrodoser liquid nitrogen dosing system would be installed either before the filler or between the filler and the seamer.” For smaller craft breweries or microbreweries that need a different option, the Nitrodoser can be mounted on either a can test bench or pilot line and operated by hand.
In its gaseous state, nitrogen is inert, colorless, odorless, non-corrosive, non-flammable and tasteless. It can also cause suffocation. That is why monitoring oxygen levels in an environment using nitrogen is essential, especially in a confined workspace. As is the case with nearly any combination of chemicals and technology, there is inherent value in knowing what safety measures to take. Introducing a cryogenic system using nitrogen into a brewery operation is no different, says Muse.
“The number one concern when integrating a cryogenic system is always safety, and the first risk people tend to associate with liquid nitrogen is cold burns and frostbite. Because all of our equipment is fully vacuum insulated, the outer surfaces of VBC equipment is always at room temperature, even while the internal liquid nitrogen is at minus 320 degrees Fahrenheit. Wearing the proper protective equipment will help prevent any injuries that might be caused by direct contact with liquid nitrogen. Additional risks include over-pressurization of trapped liquid nitrogen, oxygen displacement from expanding nitrogen gas and embrittlement of non-cryogenic materials.”
On the West Coast is Chart Industries, located near San Francisco, California, with operations across the United States and a global presence that includes Asia, Australia, Europe and Latin America. The company, with a 150-year history, is involved in virtually every industry sector of cryogenics application.
Juancho Tabangay is a chemical engineer with more than 25 years of experience in his field. As Director of Sales for Chart Industries’ Global LN2 Dosing, Tabangay says that the company has been working with craft breweries wanting to tap into the nitrogen-infused beer market for the past several years. He counts some 320 of Chart Industries’ LN2 dosing systems spread across North America and beyond.
“We’ve had conversations with our customers about the difference a dose of LN2 can make to the shelf life of their products. As an example, one of our customers shared that they get an average of a two-month shelf life but, with a dose of LN2, they see that extending to six months. Those four months can make a difference for the craft beer producers. Of course, the results vary from application to application, but the feedback from our customers proves the investment in dosers pays off quickly.”
The CryoDoser FleX® Craft Custom LN2 Dosing System is among the company’s products and popular within the craft beer industry. Just recently launched, Vault Brewing Company’s Cain says that the product’s versatility is designed to fit the requirements of the craft breweries.
This doser works in the same manner as Chart’s other models. It functions by delivering a small but precise amount of liquid nitrogen into a container as part of a packaging process. The doser is connected to a liquid nitrogen tank and uses one or more sensors to detect the can, bottle, or container and dose the liquid nitrogen. It has a removable arm that allows for extensions or custom dual-heads for dual-lane canning lines. It has an introductory price but can grow with the brewery as they expand. “
This year, Cain joined Chart Industries as a liquid nitrogen dosing specialist. From what his brewery experienced, Cain sees the use of nitrogen in craft brewing as the new lifeblood for breweries and other beverage makers eager to grow.
“We first explored the use of liquid nitrogen technology in 2015 with the launch of the world’s first widget-less nitro beer in a can. We worked with Chart Industries in order to develop the process and have since taken the technology worldwide. Nitro beers, nitro coffee, nitro RTDs, and other nitrogen-infused products target a specific customer who is looking for something unique and may expose your brand to new markets. If a brewery is packaging a lightly carbonated beer, seltzer, tea or other product, dosing with liquid nitrogen can add rigidity to the can wall and allow the brewery or distributor to stack the cans higher, saving floor space.
“Breweries can experiment with creating new still products such as cocktails-in-cans, hard water, or hard teas and use liquid nitrogen dosing to leverage the same filling and packaging equipment. The LN2 will expand into gas and pressurize the container, making it possible to package an uncarbonated product,” says Cain.
Tabangay tells Beverage Master Magazine that the success of nitrogen-infused beer comes down to the basics, which he describes as the “three P’s”— preservation, pressurization and perfect pour.
“Craft beer brewers like to tell a story with their beer using the taste and elaborate labeling. The behind-the-scenes story is about getting the best possible product for the lowest production cost. Discerning consumers expect a perfect pour from cans just as they’d get from a keg at a pub. They want a nice cascade with fine bubbles.”
When asked about whether there is a downside to using nitrogen in craft brewing, Tabangay sums it up this way. “There are only pros, no cons. Not that we’re biased, but the only way to help achieve preservation, pressurization and perfect pour is through the use of nitrogen.”
In the end, for craft brewers, it is all about pleasing the consumer, but doing so in a way that increases sales and keeps costs down. Craft brewers are learning how to use nitrogen in developing product lines that appeal to buyers who want that “perfect pour.”