Following an initial test at the end of May, Starbucks announced that more than 500 of its stores will be pouring nitro coffee out of its taps by the end of summer. Capitalizing on the trend toward cold-brew coffee—which reached $7.9 million in 2015 on 115% growth from the previous year, according to researcher Mintel—select U.S. cafes will give up counter space to serve the creamy, nitrogen-infused java made from the cold-brew base.
Bringing the Bar to the Coffeehouse
The telltale sign of nitro coffee on offer at Starbucks: a chrome double tap, similar to a beer tap in a bar. In fact, it’s that bar vibe that attracted Portland, Ore.-based Stumptown Coffee Roaster to the high-tech brewing. The 11-unit coffeehouse chain had already earned a reputation as the coffee brand with a beer vibe when it hired technical services manager Nate Armbrust, a food scientist with a passion for beer brewing, in 2013.
“On his second day, Nate started playing around with the idea of getting nitrogen into cold-brew coffee, just taking a nod from the beer world,” says Diane Aylsworth, Stumptown’s vice president of cold brew. “We were already drawing comparisons to beer, serving cold brew in stubby glass bottles and on draft, so that was his first instinct.”
A few months of tinkering later, the creamy cold coffee with the quintessentially frothy head started cascading from Stumptown taps chainwide, and customers have lapped it up since, to the tune of double-digit sales growth.
Seeing the brew’s potential, the team immediately started testing a ready-to-drink (RTD) version, which rolled out nationally in October 2015 and has flown off shelves, with sales in the triple digits. The chain even started using the technology on espresso, creating a concentrated cold-brew espresso infused with nitrogen—dubbed the cold shot—that will soon be poured across all 11 locations.
“There’s definitely a cool factor to nitro,” Aylsworth says of the brew’s meteoric rise. But she insists that it’s more than theatrics: Nitro’s creamier mouth feel makes for a smoother, perceived sweeter cuppa than traditional black coffee. This largely is because nitrogen gas doesn’t dissolve easily in water, so it forms a much denser foam of tiny bubbles when aerated to create a silkier, thicker mouth feel.
But “cool” doesn’t come quick—or cheap. Following the 12 to 24 hours required for cold-brewing coffee, the nitro infusion process demands additional time, energy and (costly) equipment.
Nitrogenation must be done under superhigh pressure using specific nitrogen-handling equipment, such as special tanks and filling lines. All baristas have to be trained on proper keg safety and handling.
At this point, the unique widget cans of the packaged variety are also expensive and difficult to source. But the biggest challenge of RTD cold brew, Aylsworth says, is its short shelf life. A low-acid product, the brew is kept food safe through a fully chilled distribution network, which also requires some detective work, because traditional networks are ambient.
Still, the future looks bright for cold brew’s newest variation: “Cold brew” mentions are up 47% on menus this past year, according to Technomic’s MenuMonitor data. And all this for a category that accounts for only 0.4% of the RTD beverage market.
Aylsworth believes that nitro’s one-two punch of coolness and less bitter flavor could bring even more consumers into the coffee category.
“Whether in a can or on draft, nitro has a little theater and enjoyment in the same way a bartender making a cocktail gives us enjoyment,” she says.
Borrowing From the Beer Industry
Beer brewers traditionally add carbon dioxide for fizz. But they’ve used nitrogen for certain richer or roasted stouts and ales for a better complementary flavor. Coffee brewers picked up on that process to create nitro coffee. Here's how it works in the coffeehouse:
Tapping the coffee keg
Coffeehouses have to have nitro taps fitted with restrictor plates. The high-pressure tap forces the coffee through tiny holes, re-aerating the nitrogen and giving it the cascading effect as it’s poured into the glass.
The nitro process begins with cold-brew coffee—made by steeping grounds in filtered water for 12 to 24 hours before filtering it.
Smooth and creamy
Nitro coffee is creamier than traditional coffee. The reason: Nitrogen doesn’t dissolve easily in water, so it forms a dense foam when aerated to create a thicker product.