The smooth sensation of nitrogen bubbles is exactly what makes Guinness Draught and La Colombe draft lattes so irresistible. It’s less the prickly feeling of effervescence than the sheer silk on your tongue, as the bubbles create a whole new texture in the drink.
Now, America’s most popular beer brand, Budweiser, will begin infusing its own beer with nitrogen. Parent company Anheuser-Busch has projected double-digit growth in the nitrogen category, and it wants its new beer, Budweiser Nitro Reserve Gold, to take a chunk of that market. The beer is flavored like a malty lager you’d expect from an American brew, but, you know, with the extra added pizzazz of nitrogen.
Nitro Reserve Gold is slated to be a permanent addition to Anheuser-Busch’s portfolio, but its can features a quirky design that requires beer drinkers to learn a whole new ergonomic around pouring beer, which Budweiser dubs the “ritual.”
Grab a can of Guinness, and you’ll notice that there’s a weird object clanging around inside the can, because nitrogen brews are packaged differently than normal CO2-bubbling beers (the nitrogen is an added gas, while the CO2 is formed naturally during the fermentation process by yeast burps). Since 1959, Guinness has added that nitrogen froth to its beers. To capture the sensation in a can, they literally pour in liquid nitrogen, then seal the containers quickly. The nitrogen dissolves into the beer, but to ensure the right texture, Guinness developed a patented widget, or what’s basically a plastic submarine with a hole in the middle. As the nitrogen pressurizes the can, excess gas and some beer is pushed into the widget. When you open the can, the pressure drops, and the gas is released from the widget. As a result, you get nitrogen homeostasis and a fantastic, creamy head.
La Colombe developed a slightly different approach for its canned draft lattes, but they required a widget, too. In their case it’s an “innovalve” that’s rigged to release liquified gas at the exact moment you open the can. (Read our deep dive on the can from 2016 here.)
But Budweiser’s innovation team found widgets to be “inconsistent” in performance, according to a rep who sidestepped my question as to whether removing material from the packaging also saved them money. So instead, their plan was to nitrogenize the beer a bit during the brew process, then package it in a can that’s topped off with nitrogen gas. Basically, that means the can has a layer of nitrogen and a layer of beer, so the two have to be shaken together to make the bubbles (which is exactly how a can of Reddi-wip works). So through an advertising campaign and in-store signs, Budweiser is teaching its customers a new way to open beer: flip the can three times, then pour it straight down into the glass (not smoothly against the side).
“This gives you a more consistent experience both visually with the dramatic effect of the bubbles and on the palate with a smoother tasting brew,” says Ricardo Marques, VP Marketing, Core & Value Brands at Budweiser—who also clarifies that the beer is just fine if you forget to take all these steps.
In any case, Budweiser seems smart to have created a nitrogen beer that’s different from Guinness’s by design. Learning and using Budweiser’s secret handshake to executing a perfect pour essentially brands not just the beer itself, but the experience of consuming it. Budweiser didn’t launch Nitro Gold. It launched a must-learn, counterintuitive dance to avoid party fouls everywhere.