CHICAGO — Nitro coffee is not just a trendy, summertime promotion. It’s a potential revenue stream for operators. By the end of 2019, Starbucks will offer nitro on tap at all company-owned units. Dunkin’ also has made room for a nitro tap at its newest formats, and convenience-store chains such as Wawa Inc., Wawa, Pa., have invested in the drink as well.
To make nitro coffee, operators pump nitrogen gas through cold-brew coffee to give it a smooth, nonacidic finish. In the past, that required bulky equipment and an accommodating footprint. Today, equipment manufacturers are meeting the growing demand for nitro in c-store-size spaces with more compact, turnkey devices. As technology advances, some experts say cold- and nitro-brew processes could even eclipse traditional coffee brewing methods.
Despite nitro coffee’s expanding presence, many Americans are foggy on what exactly it is. The demand is there with a little education, however. About 45% of consumers are interested in trying the drink after reading a description, according to Technomic’s Fall 2018 Convenience Store Consumer MarketBrief.
Nitro coffee has been evolving in the market for a while, said Marc Heffner, senior marketing director for Wilbur Curtis Co., Montebello, Calif. “In the old way, coffee brewers and manufacturers would put a nitrogen tablet into a keg and infuse it into the keg," he said. "What they were seeing was an irregularity in the cascade and in the nitro infusion.”
Curtis, now an entity of Encully, France-based Groupe SEB, aims to create a consistent cup of coffee with its Nitro Infuser. The 4-inch-by-6-inch compact device plugs into existing kegerator equipment and takes less than an hour to install. Retailers need only a nitrogen tank to get started. The Nitro Infuser is in tests in several markets. “[Customers] are able to move out of the test lab and into stores within 24 hours,” Heffner said. He sees growth potential in the nitro-infused market and expects the equipment to continue to downsize.
By altering atmospheric gasses, Brewista Inc. has even done away with the nitrogen tank. The Cheyenne, Wyo.-based company’s Cold Pro Nitro 2 infuses coffee with nitrogen from the air, and then ash chills it before dispensing. Users can get started with the device in about two minutes.
“The machine is truly plug and play,” said Joshua Smith, Brewista’s head of sales and customer service. “Store your cold brew in the bag-in-box bladder, snap the nozzle to the connector and the machine does the rest.”
Instead of hooking up to a kegerator, the Cold Pro Nitro 2 is a 52-pound countertop unit. “Space-efficient machines is definitely a trend we have seen in c-store and coffee shops alike,” Smith said. “The Brewista Cold Pro Nitro 2 is a huge space saver. We have eliminated the need for kegs and kegerators.”
And a nitro technological development is in the works that could soon eliminate the complicated espresso step—and the espresso machine—from the process of making coffee beverages. This would help c-stores in their efforts to keep pace with coffee shops.
“The nitro industry is currently working on a product that could eliminate espresso drinks altogether,” Smith said. “This should allow c-stores to eliminate even more machines and free up more space.”
Bunn is also engineering products that allow operators to ditch nitrogen tanks or generators. The Springfield, Ill.-based beverage equipment manufacturer launched its Nitron Cold Draft dispenser in 2017 and has continued to innovate the product, said Chairil McClain, director of product management. Instead of kegs, the device uses 1-gallon bag-in-box concentrates. The original model has one tap devoted to nitro coffee and another for cold brew, but in the past few years, Bunn has added an all-nitro version. In the next few months, Bunn will introduce its Nitron Gas Module, which uses a three-stage air-filtration system.
While some operators are still debating whether they want to go all-in on nitro, others have moved on to drinks such as tea and soda, McClain said. “Based on what we are hearing from operators, we believe nitro beverages still have a long future ahead,” she said.