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Starbucks Introduces Nitro Coffee

America's biggest coffee purveyor is on a mission to corner coffee's third wave

Coffee infused with nitrogen gas? It's coming to a Starbucks near you. By the end of summer 2016, over 500 Starbucks locations will serve nitro coffee, a cold brew that has been infused with nitrogen, chemical element number 7.

Nitro coffee first hit the market in 2011 or 2012 (claims vary). In June 2013, Portland-based Stumptown Coffee Roasters installed nitrogen taps at its cafes. In 2015, by popular demand, Stumptown began canning its nitro. Late last year, Caribou Coffee, which is based in Minnesota, introduced nitro coffee on tap; by this past February 25 of its more than 600 locations offered the drink. This July, Starbucks becomes the third — and by far largest — chain to serve nitro, a coffee beverage known for having a rich, creamy mouthfeel and sweet flavor.

"Nitro coffee has been under development at Starbucks for about a year."

Imagine a coffee that looks like a Guinness: Dark, but effervescent, and with a foamy head on top. That's what nitro looks like. But it tastes nothing like beer. Nitro is made when cold brew coffee is joined by nitrogen gas in a refrigerated tank. The amount of gas added varies, but generally falls around 20 percent by volume. The beverage emerges from a tap looking like a cascade of brown liquid. Its taste is the most surprising thing about it: like an iced coffee that already has cream and a touch of sugar added. In fact, it is completely sugar- and dairy-free. Nitro coffee contains only cold brew coffee and nitrogen.

According to Mackenize Karr, a coffee education specialist with Starbucks, cold brew coffee is used because of its smooth, less-acidic flavors. "Nitro coffee has been under development at Starbucks for about a year," Karr says, "and cold brew was a natural choice given the blend of beans and quality of roast." Starbucks cold brew coffee is brewed from an entirely different roast than what it uses for its iced coffee.

So what about price? At Starbucks, a grande (large, 16 fl. oz.) nitro will range in price from $3.25 to $3.95, depending on the market. This works out to be just a bit more than Starbucks' cold brew (which launched at $3.25 for a grande last year) and around a dollar more than a regular iced coffee. At Stumptown, which has only 11 locations nationwide and roasts its beans in smaller batches, a 12-ounce cold brew costs no more than $3.50; the same size nitro costs $4.50 (price varies by market). Of note: While iced coffee and cold brew are served on ice, nitro is served directly from the cold tap at both Starbucks and Stumptown, and served neat. Either way, the taste, and experience, of drinking iced coffee, cold brew, or nitro is significantly different.

Starbucks' nitro launch will happen in waves. Four Seattle-area locations already serve the beverage. By this summer's end, it will be served at locations in New York, Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, and Los Angeles as well.

In addition to launching nitro coffee, Starbucks is unveiling a new drink today: Vanilla Sweet Cream Cold Brew is cold brew coffee served on ice and topped with a float of house-made vanilla sweet cream, made from milk, cream, and vanilla-flavored syrup. This is Starbucks taking a cue from third wave coffee's cold brew darling and innovating on top of it, adding flavoring and sugar — two elements that have become something like Starbucks' signature.

The introduction of nitro coffee is an interesting move for Starbucks, a company that was at the forefront of coffee's second wave. Once an innovator in the coffee sector, Starbucks created and captured a new generation of coffee drinkers in the '80s and '90s by introducing flavored brews and Frappuccinos. Today, with coffee's third wave well under way, Starbucks is playing catch up. Rather than simply innovate, the coffee giant is inspired by the small, obsessive coffee shops that have popped up in large cities across the country. The roasters and baristas behind these shops are pushing coffee drinkers to expect more, better, and fresher brews. Demand for quality coffee isn't waning. But can Starbucks simultaneously cater to consumers who like their Pumpkin Spice Lattes and those who want a flat white? With this nationwide nitro launch, it's clearly betting on it.