Nitrogen—a chemical element with the symbol N and atomic number 7—is a transparent, odorless, diatomic gas, that can also be added to a keg along with coffee to yield a foamy, caffeinated beverage known as "nitro coffee." And in the last year, nitro coffee has insinuated its foamy tentacles into the world of specialty coffee thanks to its smooth, creamy taste and fizzy beer-esque look. But this isn’t just a $5 glass of morning beer—it’s a completely new coffee experience.
According to Mike McKim, founder of Austin's specialty roaster Cuvée Coffee, "as far as I can tell, we were the first to serve nitro coffee on tap, at the Slow Foods Quiz Bowl, here in Austin on August 12, 2012." But McKim didn’t stop there. Cuvée went on to debut a nitro coffee in a ready-to-drink can format. "We absolutely were the first in the world to launch nitro coffee in a ready-to-drink can," states McKim. "Our nitro cans hit the shelves November of 2014 and the other guys launched theirs April of this year..."
Cuvée's 71 Classic blend goes into their nitro taps and nitro cans, and McKim says that he went with a nitrogen-infused coffee because "Mouth feel, and visual appeal. The coffee tastes creamy, and let’s face it; the cascade just looks badass."
Like regular coffee, the way people choose to drink nitro is personal. But McKim prefers the drink over ice, while others like it straight up. "At the shop we offer a drink with the dairy/non-dairy of your choice and vanilla or simple syrup, to satisfy the sweet tooth," he continues.
While Cuvée was likely the first, in the three years since they launched the brew, other have entered the nitro ring. This past April, ever-growing Portland, Oregon roaster Stumptown debuted its own nitro cans inspired by the success of its nitro which hit taps in select cafes two years ago. According to Stumptown rep Diane Aylsworth, "things on tap are really a hot trend ... now you're seeing wine, cold brew coffee, kombucha, sparkling tea—all on draft. People are excited seeing new beverages presented that way." Further, nitro coffee "is a great gateway for those who think they want/need cream in their coffee to drink black coffee. The mouthfeel and what that does to the flavor is really appealing to many people’s palates. Plus it looks really cool," she continues.
While nitrogen-infused coffee is a novelty in itself, it's not novel enough for some, like Manhattan's pop-up coffee shop Mighty Brew Bros. In addition to serving a bevy of creative coffee and tea beverages, proprietor Josh Kim offers up a drink called the Nitro Pop, basically a glass of nitro coffee with a coffee popsicle garnish, and also a Nitro Float with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
"At Mighty Brew Bros, we aim to surprise and delight our customers by reimagining familiar drinks," explains Kim. "Since nitro is still a relatively new concept for most people, it was an easy decision to take the ubiquitous cold brew and add the nitro twist that makes it special. Not only is it visually intriguing, but it also gives the cold brew a rich, creamy texture and natural sweetness without the need to add milk and sugar."
Kim cited experimentation and play as motivation for his diverse menu, which includes a coffee piña colada called the Colada Especial, a nitro riff on a dark and stormy named the Mighty Stormy, and nitro matcha tea. "After experimenting with many different flavor combinations, we discovered that nitro is much more compatible with a wider variety of ingredients than straight up cold brew," said Kim. Mighty Brew Bros also insist on serving even the most basic nitro cold brew over ice because "New York can get unbearably hot during the summer, and although our nitro comes out chilled, it can get lukewarm mighty fast on days like that. We add ice to our nitro because we want the last sip to be equally as refreshing as the first sip."
Out in the East Bay area of San Francisco, Highwire Coffee Roasters' nitro-infused cold brewed Howling Wolf has been appearing in both cafes and bars. Brand Ambassador Tony Serrano questions, "Why not? It's just a matter of time before coffee geeks try a different preparation of craft coffee. Or, just a matter of time before old preparation approaches are utilized and trending again; soda fountains used to have a myriad of house-made beverages on tap and with different gasses or conditioned service styles."
Serrano explains that Howling Wolf is brewed specifically to emulate the flavor profile of a Stout beer, with notes of chocolate, barley, malts, and a hint of orange peel for brightness. He says that he drinks it black, but that the nitro coffee is flexible: "How about some of our amazing ganache on the bottom, draft the Wolf on top, splash a touch of cream, and enjoy the taste of an old fashioned chocolate soda. The sky is the limit."
In Serrano’s opinion, the nitro zeitgeist is another stop on the long road of coffee experimentation. "It's only a matter of time before we, coffee geeks, try it all in the search for a new and unique preparation of craft coffee. Have you ever seen a barista competition? I have ... the coffee pros distill coffee, sous vide coffee beans and [use] nitrogen emulsifications."