Exploring the rise of nitro coffee

Aidan Gant
February 2, 2022
cans of nitro coffee in a box

Of all the new coffee-based drinks to enter the market in recent years, few have caused as much excitement as nitro coffee.

Made by brewing coffee grounds with cold or room temperature water before infusing it with nitrogen gas, it has become one of the fastest-growing items for coffee shops around the world.

According to a recent survey, 62% of industry leaders believe nitro coffee will become a coffee shop staple within the next three years. This has been helped along in no small part by some of the industry’s biggest players, including Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts, and Tim Horton.

This is having a knockon effect throughout the rest of the sector, with many beginning to explore the possibility of adding their own nitro coffee to proceedings. But what exactly is it? And is it a good idea for all coffee businesses? Read on to find out more.

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What is nitro coffee?

While the exact origin is often disputed, nitro coffee was reportedly first created by Portland-based food scientist Nate Armbrust.

During his time working for Stumptown Coffee Roasters in 2013, Nate attempted to carbonate cold coffee. However, his initial attempts failed, as the introduction of carbon dioxide (CO2) substantially shifted the flavour profile and increased its acidity. 

Eventually, Nate found much more success with the introduction of nitrogen gas.

To produce nitro coffee, you must start with coffee. This can be brewed hot and then cooled. The Japanese-style iced coffee, which is made by brewing hot coffee directly onto ice, is a popular method for doing this.

Some third-wave coffee shops prefer to use hot brewed coffee as it can impart a brighter, fruit-forward profile to the resulting brew.

More commonly, coffee is brewed with cold water before being infused with nitrogen. The use of cold brew for nitro coffee imparts a soft, chocolatey tone that pairs nicely with the silky smooth nitros.

Infusing nitrogen makes the drink much smoother and creamier, with a mouthfeel similar to Guinness from the tap. Guinness is an Irish dry stout recognised for its dark colour, distinctive foam head, and smooth, creamy texture.

While the jury is still out over whether the nitro process affects the flavour profile, its velvet silkiness sets it apart from other cold brews, which are a growing market in their own right.

Nitro coffee can be served in cafés straight from a pre-infused keg through a tap similar to more familiar stout taps.

As far as getting nitro cold brew on tap goes, it can be found across independent cafés in many US states. Starbucks, the world’s largest coffee shop chain, added it to their menus in July 2015.

Many third wave coffee shops in the UK have been introducing it since Grind first bought it into several of their London branches in 2015.

Nitro coffee can also be sold for off-site consumption in pressurised cans of RTD coffee. Many of the current market leaders in the specialty coffee sector are still stateside. This includes originators Stumptown and competitors Blue Bottle Coffee, among others.

However, London-based Minor Figures are now producing cans of specialty nitro cold brew in the UK. Outside of the specialty market, brands such as Nescafé Azera, and Costa also have ranges of nitro products available.

What is driving its popularity with customers?

Since arriving on the market, nitro coffee has been popular among consumers.

For example, Starbucks first trialled nitro brew in 500 locations before rapidly rolling it out to all branches following data analysis.

Considering that cold brew and iced drinks account for just 25% of Starbucks’ beverage sales, nitro brew is clearly a product that sells.

Furthermore, it is a highly marketable drink. The visual impact is sure to draw attention as the frothy brew cascades from the tap. When served, nitro coffee should cascade with a rich, golden color and have a dense head of microfoam on top. 

The cascade shows the nitrogen bubbles rising and the coffee circling the glass. This mesmerising effect is what can hook customers. The longer you can sustain a cascade, the longer the “awe” factor lasts.

Additionally, since it is so smooth and creamy, nitro coffee does not require milk. This makes it a great option for consumers who don’t enjoy traditional black coffee and are trying to avoid dairy. 

With the ever-accelerating rise of veganism, it is now essential to include more options that appeal to the plant-based market. 

Strict vegans do not use or consume any animal products, so having menu options available for these consumers can help paint your business in a positive light. 

Not only can this help appeal to a broader market and increase your customer base, but it also ensures your business remains inclusive. 

Why should roasters and cafés offer nitro coffee?

There are numerous advantages to adding nitro coffee to the menu, as despite its growing popularity, many places do not offer it.

Therefore, it can be a great way to stand out from competitors, particularly in places where it is still emerging, such as the UK.

Nitro coffee has not been universally adopted. This may be due to the initial set-up costs of installing the infrastructure, in terms of space, and labour.

However, another way of looking at this is whether you want to be the café that is left behind when all the other high street chain shops have rolled nitro across their branches.

Further reasons to include nitro coffee among your offerings would be its long shelf life and batch economy nature, which makes it very profitable.

Additionally, its ease of service means staff with very little training can pour a nitro coffee in no time at all.

For coffee roasters and café owners, it is important to stay on top of the industry’s latest trends. It can help ensure increased revenue and give businesses a competitive edge.

One trend that has remained constant in recent years is the shift towards more sustainable packaging.

Many specialty roasters are choosing to use environmentally friendly alternatives, such as recyclable packaging materials, compostable takeaway cups, and sustainable coffee bags.

MTPak Coffee offers a range of sustainable packaging options for specialty roasters. Our selection of recyclable, biodegradable, and compostable materials can be fully customised to your needs to help shape your brand identity and showcase a strong commitment to the environment.

For more information on our sustainable packaging, contact our team.

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