Behind the bar was Domhnall Marnell, from Guinness, who had just handed a select group of beer writers and industry peeps a can of Guinness Nitro IPA. His lilting Irish accent belied the achievement of the American premiere of the beer at The Growler Bites & Brews on Stone Street (a lovely bar, even if it does require crossing FiDi Bridge and Tunnelers to get to it).
While acknowledging the merit of the question, he quickly dismissed it as “much ado about nothing,” noting that innovation has always been a trademark of the Guinness brand. After all, if it weren’t for Guinness, it’s possible that nitrogen might never have been used as a carbonation for beer.
There’s been a lot of discord in the craft beer community about various buyouts of existing brands and mergers among others, but a growing discontent is also starting to register among those of us who like the purity laws, be they Germany’s strict Reinheitsgebot or simply a traditional saison recipe handed down from one generation to the next at Brasserie Dupont. We may love our 100 IBU American-style IPAs (India Pale Ales), but we respect the diversity that craft offers us and we don’t want to see European style go all Levis jeans and Nike shoes (to offer up a metaphor).
Well, here’s the good news. Despite the presence of five (FIVE!) different hops in the Guinness Nitro IPA, the beer weighs in at a relatively paltry 44 IBUs. The only hops used throughout the brewing process is Admiral, with Celia and Topaz being added at mid-boil. While the company is boasting about its dry-hopping with Challenger and Cascade, the truth is they are infusing the dry hops rather than actually doing traditional dry hopping. This is reflected in the nose, which gives off very little of the distinctive aromas beer drinkers expect from a dry hopped beer. (For more on the brewing of this beer, check out the four-minute video courtesy of Guinness, below).
So, is there bad news to go with the good? Not really. The beer is a reasonable English IPA, with the novelty of being – per the company slogan – “Supremely smooth. Unmistakably Guinness.” The beer employs the same yeast that is used in the stout, so there’s no mistaking it for another brand. And the nitrogen adds an element of surprise: It was comical as we experienced IPA drinkers were gingerly pouring the Nitro IPA into our glasses, expecting the foam-up that occurs from a CO2-infused IPA. Domhnall bemusedly had to cajole us into pouring our beers more quickly, assuring us that the beer would not foam over the glass. It didn’t. However, there is still a wait for drinking a Guinness IPA, only it’s on the back end, not the pouring end. The distinctive caramel head that forms in a Guinness Stout is also present in the IPA; the cloudy beer clears to a deep amber after about 90 seconds.
This is not a beer that will win over any hop heads. However, it is a beer that many Guinness drinkers will enjoy. At 5.8% ABV, the IPA is a “big” beer by Guinness standards (the stout is traditionally around 4% when served in Europe) but still fairly sessionable by American IPA standards.
So, is nitrogen going to take over IPAs the way that it has stouts? Unlikely. At least not stateside. The NO2 reduces the bitterness and bite that most IPA drinkers have come to expect. Palate fatigue aside, I think this is more of a “gateway” (and you know how much I hate that term) IPA for people who don’t really like IPAs. Although there are a couple other brewers experimenting with nitrogen-infused IPAs, I don’t think the mouthfeel is as compelling as with a stout. Plus, there’s the reality that bars aren’t going to take over their few nitro lines with an IPA. Guinness has its trademarked widget ball in cans, meaning bars can easily stock the cans in lieu of (or in addition to) draught.
If this is what the European IPA market looks like, I’m on board. A parallel style that hearkens to tradition over bandwagoning onto an already over-saturated American IPA presence. And your Guinness-drinking friends will love it.