Looking back, 2013 might not seem like such a big year: there were no major elections, no Olympic scandals, and Donald Trump was still little more than a reality TV novelty. But, with a bit of squinting effort, it becomes clear that it was actually pretty significant: Pope Francis made the pulpit cool, Kim and Kanye gave birth to a child named North, and the cronut was unleashed on New York City. And last but not least, nitro cold brew was quietly introduced to the world.
To label nitro cold brew’s introduction as "quiet" might seem inaccurate, especially because it involves, well, the infusion of gas into coffee, but it’s true: the stuff languished in specialty coffee purgatory for a few years before breaking out beyond its home cities of Austin (at Cuvee Coffee) and Portland, Oregon (at Stumptown), properly in 2015. Speaking to Diane Aylsworth, the VP of Stumptown’s Cold Brew program, it becomes clear that not only has nitro cold brew fully arrived, it’s certainly not going anywhere anytime soon.
“It went from being the niche, secret item that only coffee nerds knew about, and started to be more mainstream in the world of coffee,” she says. By mainstream she means, of course, that coffee behemoth Starbucks announced earlier this year that nearly 500 of its locations would offer nitro cold brew on tap by the end of the summer.
But what’s so great about nitro cold brew that one of the world’s largest coffee chains has decided to implement it in several hundred stores? Well, for starters, there’s the base ingredient, which is the rich, chocolate-y coffee that has been cold brewed for up to 24 hours before being cut with water. And then there’s the nitrogen, which, when paired with the stout tap and its finely perforated restrictor disc through which the cold brew is served, creates a textural wonderland unlike anything else offered in a coffee shop. (Several brands also offer the stuff in cans, which are equipped with widgets that work to create a similar texture to that produced by the stout tap. Be warned, though: opening the cans immediately after the suggested shaking will not end well.) The gas from the nitrogen creates pockets of air in the body of the coffee that gives it a kind of luxurious mouthfeel that’s like a milkshake, only with none of the calories or dairy — it’s suggested you drink it black, sans milk.
From a business standpoint, the appeal of nitro cold brew for Stumptown is obvious. When Stumptown was started by Duane Sorenson in 1999, specialty coffee was barely even a trend, let alone the industry it’s grown into today. (Peet’s, the legendary coffee company, acquired Stumptown in late 2015.) But specialty coffee has blown up, and, in cities big and small, it’s sometimes hard to find a neighborhood without a coffee shop that offers a flat white or cold brew. In this crowded atmosphere, nitro is a surefire way for coffee shops to stand out.
One such coffee shop that’s embraced nitro is Square One, located not in New York or L.A., but in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The company actually has three locations, and has won a Good Food Award, which explains why their bottled cold brew is some of the market’s best. They haven’t started canning the nitro stuff yet, offering it only from in-store taps, but Hadassah Wilson, the company’s director of education and head of quality control, pretty perfectly describes the appeal of nitro: “Nitro offers a whole different experience. It eliminates the need for milk in many ways,” and, she adds, because Square One’s nitro — branded as the Velvet Hammer — is made with a blend of Nicaraguan and African coffees (currently Rwandan, changing to a natural process Ethiopian in the near future), there’s a little more complexity in the drink. “Instead of just the chocolate with a little bit of fruit, we wanted more fruit sweetness.”
Such is the ultimate appeal of a glass (or can) of nitro cold brew: more than most other coffee beverages, it’s perfect as it is. The fullness of its rich body eliminates the need for milk while the complexity of the nitro allows for a flavor just sweet enough that you wouldn’t dare add sugar. Nitro is so magical that Stumptown has taken it and run, furthering its devotion to its cold brew brand by expanding its nitro offerings to include a nitrogenated shot of cold brewed Hairbender (the roaster’s de facto espresso blend) called the Cold Shot, and has gone so far as to concoct sodas in which that acts as the foundational ingredient.
It would be understandable to chalk up nitro as a gimmick or a fad in coffee, but something that’s worth remembering is that coffee has only recently been recognized as a thing with nuance, a specialized product that isn’t just, as Anthony Bourdain says, “fuel.” As the coffee industry solidifies and the core ingredients are subjected to experimentation, it only makes sense that the offerings will expand. Whether or not those offerings will always trickle down to Starbucks, who knows.