what is nitro coffee?

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Large cup of nitro cold brew coffee cascading

If you’ve ever been to a Starbucks and thought you’ve noticed a beer tap, you aren’t entirely wrong. While there are taps in many of their stores, they aren’t pouring beer out of them.

They’re actually used to pour nitro coffee. The drink has exploded over the past few years and has become one of the most popular new styles of coffee. In an industry that has seen lots of innovation recently, nitro coffee is one of the most unique advancements.

Barista pouring large cup of nitro cold brew coffee

How nitro cold brew is made

Nitro drinks may be familiar to beer drinkers as they became popular over the last decade. Microbreweries rise in popularity has led to more experimental drinks, and nitro taps became one of those. After hitting the beer market, nitro drinks made their way into the coffee world.

What some might not know is that the actual coffee in a nitro is regular old cold brew. Don’t get that confused with iced coffee, which is often mistaken for cold brew. Iced coffee is coffee that’s been brewed in the traditional manner but then chilled afterward. Cold brew, however, goes through a different process where it is chilled during the hours-long brewing.

So, nitro coffee uses this cold brew as its base. From there the coffee is put into a keg that is often chilled so there is no ice required upon serving.

Then the coffee is infused with nitrogen and is poured via a tap, just like a beer. It comes out as a thick, frothy drink that doesn’t look anything like a standard coffee. The infusion might sound odd, but it’s more normal than one might think.

Fountain drinks at restaurants are infused with carbon dioxide as they pour, which give them their bubbles. This is a similar process, except replace the carbon dioxide with nitrogen. The nitrogen creates smaller bubbles than the carbon dioxide, which is why the foam rests on top. Just like carbonated drinks have a unique texture, so do nitro drinks.

While they don’t change the look of a beer much, it really alters how a coffee appears. It almost could be mistaken for a Guinness – a rich brown bottom that gradually gets lights near the top, where a frothy foam sits.

(Pro tip – How to make nitro cold brew at home)

Barista just finished pouring large glass of nitro cold brew coffee

Rise in popularity

Initially, it was a fairly niche drink. You could find them at some local coffee shops that specialize in novelty drinks. Then the rise in popularity began. What really set things off for the drink was when Starbucks began serving them at over 500 of their shops in 2016. After testing them at a select few stores, the popularity led them to expand.

Now, with half of all Starbucks in the country serving nitro, and other top brands following their lead, the drink has become one of the most common and popular coffee drinks in the market.

It’s not just for the chain stores either, plenty of local shops serve them.
Plus, they have become extremely convenient to package in cans and bottles, so they’ve become common at convenience stores and grocery stores. Typical coffee beans have a shelf life of a few weeks. That makes them hard to package long term.

With nitro cans and bottles, the product stays fresh for months because the nitro infusion keeps the drink fresh for longer. For those who are on the go and can’t wait in line, it’s an excellent option.

One of the other reasons for its surge is the health benefits it comes with. It’s very low-calorie and requires no sugar, but the nitro gives it some additional taste and texture. Normally, that would require milk or a sweetener, but this process makes the drink less bitter and eliminates those extra calories.

If there was a detractor for coffee lovers out there, it would be the price. Because nitro drinks require an elaborate setup with the keg and gas infusion, they are often charged at a high price point. It’s cold brew with extra steps, and those steps cost money. It might not be the most economical drink, but consumers have clearly shown that they are willing to pay a premium for

There is some dispute as to how the drink originated. Coffee shops in multiple cities in the US have laid claim to being the originators, but it depends on who you ask. Regardless of who invented it, the timing was close. Whoever it was, they certainly changed the game when it comes to novelty coffee drinks.

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