Sheboygan’s 3 Sheeps Brewing is opening a new frontier for Wisconsin beer.
This week it introduces what’s believed to be the first “nitro” beer to be bottled or canned by a Wisconsin brewer.
Even if you haven’t heard the term — describing a beer that uses nitrogen bubbles instead of carbon dioxide “carbonation” — it’s likely you’ve seen nitro beer and its dramatic cascading pour.
It’s become the defining characteristic of Guinness in the United States, whether from a special tap line or its “widgetized” cans and bottles. It’s helped give Colorado’s Left Hand Brewing a near-national footprint behind its best-selling Milk Stout Nitro.
The nation’s largest craft brewer, Boston Beer, is betting big on nitro, too, announcing late last month three year-round Samuel Adams nitro beers: an India pale ale, coffee stout and a white ale based on a witbier. Four-packs of the 15.2-ounce tallboy cans are expected in February.
While nitro beer options in take-home packages remain relatively scarce, even on a national level, interest in nitro beers on draft, where the innovation was born, has skyrocketed in the past few years.
Why? Because nitro beer is pretty awesome.
Nitrogen bubbles are much smaller than their CO2 counterparts, and the effect of that chemistry or physics or whatever on the beer’s drinking experience is profound. Those tiny bubbles smooth out a nitro beer’s body and lend a luxuriously creamy texture, almost regardless of the underlying beer.
And that’s one of the criticisms I have of many nitro beers: replacing carbonation with nitrogenation can be a gimmick, an easy crutch to make a mediocre beer better. A secondary quibble: the rich, dense foam cap on a nitro beer creates a barrier, muting the beer’s aroma, obviously, but also some of its flavor.
Some brewers have gotten wise to this, designing beers especially for nitrogen. Sam Adams is buildings its nitro beers from scratch, and 3 Sheeps did so in the beer it rolls out in bottles this week.
Cashmere Hammer, a rye stout, has been a draft-only beer for more than a year, every drop on nitro. Founder and brewmaster Grant Pauly built the recipe around the nitrogen as a key ingredient, said James Owen, 3 Sheeps co-owner.
“Grant really designed this beer around what that bubble contributes to the beer,” Owen said. “We didn’t want to just find a beer that was just a beer and then, ‘Hey, let’s serve it on nitro.’ It was, ‘Let’s make a beer that is created with that nitro bubble in mind.’ ”
To wit, Cashmere Hammer has 11 percent of the grain bill given over to the spicy, earthy rye — a pretty high amount, enough to punch through the muting effect of the nitro and add to the bold, roasty character from the dark malts. “If this beer was served on CO2, that rye would probably be a bit overpowering,” Owen said.
The beer proved popular enough that 3 Sheeps figured it would become a best-seller, or close, if they could bottle it.
“Pretty much right since the beginning it kind of ate at Grant to try to figure out how to bottle this beer,” Owen said. “We wanted to get it out there in stores and have people experience it the way it’s meant to be served.”
Owen calls the solution to that significant technical problem a “trade secret” but acknowledged that it involves a mix of CO2 and nitrogen going into each bottle with the help of some special equipment on the bottling line, rather than the “widgets” used by Guinness and, soon, Sam Adams.
Although there are no plans to bottle any other beers on nitro, 3 Sheeps clearly has a fondness for the technique. It put eight of its beers on nitro for the 2014 Great Taste of the Midwest and filled out the theme with “American Gladiators” costumes. (Nitro was one of the regular gladiators on the ’80s-’90s competition show.) The brewery even put a funky wild-yeast pale ale, Seven Legged Cartwheel, on nitro for draft.
But first, let’s follow those tiny bubbles into the bottle.
Style: American stout
What it’s like: The craft standard for nitro beer is Left Hand’s Milk Stout Nitro, but Cashmere Hammer is a bigger, bolder beer on a couple counts.
Where, how much: Six-packs of the year-round Cashmere Hammer will be on a new pricing tier, around $11.
The beer: First, a lesson in pouring nitro beers, and you have to pour nitro beers into a glass to get the necessary effect. Pour it as hard as you can — go vertical, right away, and give it a little shake at the end. Nitrogen needs to be sloshed around a little to be activated; if you do a smooth pour down the side of the glass you’re going to get a flat, possibly weird beer. It’s working if you get a beautiful little whirlpool of cascading bubbles.
OK, the actual beer. Cashmere Hammer’s aroma is bready dark malt with coffee and particularly chocolate notes and just a touch of spicy rye coming through. But nitro beers really shine after a sip, and Cashmere Hammer impresses with a sweet but balanced roast-chocolatey malt character up front and an earthy finish. Despite the robust rye content, it’s really an accent flavor.
It’s already a very nice stout, but easily the most distinctive feature here is the nitro, which makes Cashmere Hammer as soft and enveloping as the name implies. It’s worth noting that my conclusions were drawn from samples provided by 3 Sheeps from a test run of the bottles; Owen thought the bottles hitting shelves this week would have a somewhat more robust nitro character.
Booze factor: The 6.5 percent ABV is a touch higher than Milk Stout Nitro’s 6 percent and way above Guinness Draught, which is 4.3 percent or less.
The buzz: Cashmere Hammer’s rollout in bottles comes as part of a major makeover of 3 Sheeps’ beer portfolio. Rebel Kent the First, Really Cool Waterslides and Baaad Boy black wheat ale remain the lower-priced flagships. Joining them year-round are Cashmere Hammer and former seasonals First Kiss, an imperial IPA brewed with honey; and Hello, My Name is Joe imperial coffee black wheat ale. Ewephoria, a ginger chocolate stout, will return as an early spring seasonal along the lines of Happy Summer, an excellent juicy IPA released in bombers in July.
And 3 Sheeps continues to use bomber releases — some of which have lingered in bottle shops — to explore big beers, unusual ingredients and barrel-aging. The August release Paid Time Off, a 10 percent ABV imperial black wheat made with toasted coconut, cocoa nibs and walnuts provided the candy bar profile you’d hope for. For the bold there’s September’s Hoppy Spice, a massive 11.2 percent imperial IPA with the additional (and significant) burn of ghost peppers. This month brings Midnight, with Pauly’s imperial black wheat base aged in bourbon barrels. The next release is in December, with Ewephoria aged in rum barrels.
It’s a pretty hot lineup if you like exploring beer, and there’s more coming in 2016, with sour beers both dark and light, and a barrel-aged stout with Belgian candi sugar and tangerines.
Bottom line: 4 stars (out of five)