What’s driving the nitro coffee movement?

The high-tech extension of cold brew goes beyond the cool factor.

spilled coffee beans glasses

Following an initial test at the end of May, Starbucks announced that more than 500 of its stores will be pouring nitro coffee by the end of summer. Capitalizing on the cold-brew coffee trend—which reached $7.9 million in sales in 2015 on 115% growth from the previous year, according to researcher Mintel—select U.S. cafes will give up the counter space to serve the creamy, nitrogen-infused java made from the cold-brew base. But how did nitro become the hottest new thing in coffee?

Bringing the bar to coffeehouses

It was the chrome double tap, similar to a bar’s beer tap, and the vibe that comes with it that attracted Portland, Ore.-based Stumptown Coffee Roasters to the high-tech brewing method a few years back. The 12-unit
coffeehouse chain already had established itself as a 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 its signature frothy head started flowing from Stumptown taps chainwide, and customers have lapped it up since, to the tune of double-digit sales growth.

Cost considerations

“There’s definitely a cool factor to nitro,” Aylsworth says of the brew’s rise in popularity. But scaling “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 super high pressure, using specific nitrogen-handling equipment, such as special tanks and filling lines.

New training also comes into play. Because it’s a different system with tools not commonly found in a coffee shop, baristas have to be taught proper keg safety and handling, in addition to learning how to make the cold and nitro brews.

Catching on

Aylsworth says nitro’s one-two punch of coolness and less bitter flavor could draw more consumers to coffee. One reason: health. A 12-ounce nitro coffee from Starbucks has five calories and no sugar; the chain says nitrogen unlocks the natural sweetness of cold-brew coffee.
Plus, “Nitro has a little theater and enjoyment in the same way a bartender making a cocktail gives us enjoyment,” Aylsworth says, bringing in the eatertainment factor that millennials crave. “That enjoyment can really extend the coffee ritual into different dayparts.”

4 fast facts about nitro coffee

  1. Tapping the coffee keg. Coffeehouses have to have nitro taps fitted with restrictor plates. The high-pressure tap forces the coffee through tiny holes, reaerating the nitrogen and giving it the cascading effect as it’s poured.
  2. Time out. The nitro process begins with cold-brew coffee—made by steeping grounds in filtered water for 12 to 24 hours before filtering it.
  3. 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.
  4. Borrowing beer industry tech. 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.

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