On a recent trip into the Good Beer Hunting archives, I came across a quote that resonated with me. In his article on Brettanomyces Trois, my colleague Evan Rail wrote: “Set your time machine for five years and you’ll find yourself in a vastly different beer world.” As I read that, I thought, “Dammit—we’re exactly the same.”
Because folks, if you set your time machine back five years, you’ll also find yourself in a vastly different coffee world. There were no Blue Bottles in Japan, lactic-acid fermentation wasn’t a thing we’d heard of, and nitro cold brew was just starting to emerge on the market. Now, five years later, you can grab cans of it in your local Target.
Nitro cold brew is one of coffee’s strongest ties to beer. It’s the thing we grasp for when trying to make coffee relatable and relevant to those outside the industry. If you walk into any café and ask a barista what nitro cold brew is, inevitably they’ll make a Guinness or Stout comparison. And even though we’re still justifying its existence, nitro cold brew is everywhere.
In 2016, Starbucks announced that it would be adding nitro lines to 2,500 of its 8,500 U.S. stores; by the end of this year, they’ll be installed in every single U.S. location. The trend has become so popular that even Dunkin’, the ubiquitous East Coast coffee chain known for serving coffees “light and sweet,” has added nitro lines to select stores, and you can find whole sections of grocery or big-box stores dedicated to RTD nitro drinks.
Although nitro now feels ubiquitous in the coffee and beer worlds, it’s a relatively new innovation in both industries. As Evan Rail detailed in a different GBH article, nitro was a happy accident first developed by Michael Ash in the 1950s while he was working on improving Guinness’ shelf life. Adding nitro to coffee also began as a fringe idea about seven years ago. Following many unexpected twists and turns, it has since grown into a phenomenon—albeit a controversial one.
It seems silly that nitro cold brew wasn’t an idea sooner. It’s an obvious pairing: many rich, dark beer styles like Stouts and Porters, which take well to nitrogenation, are known for their coffee-like flavors. And coffee hasn’t been shy about borrowing from other beverage traditions in its quest to differentiate itself as a specialty product.
“In 2006 I was working as a consultant for a company that imported espresso machines,” says Mike McKim, owner of Cuvee Coffee in Austin, Texas. One day, he remembers, he was sitting in a café when he spied something he had never seen before. “As I’m talking to the owner I see a bunch of high-school kids coming in, and I’m watching the barista serve them these pint glasses out of a beer tap with what looked like beer. So I was like, ‘What are you serving these kids?’”
The owner showed McKim what he was doing: brewing hot coffee, adding milk and vanilla syrup, and then transferring the blend to a keg and serving it on tap. McKim thought it was genius. “I had never seen coffee on tap before…so I came back and told all my wholesale customers, ‘Hey, the cold brew you’re selling—put it on tap and people will lose their minds.’ And everybody, literally everybody, told me the exact same thing: that it was the dumbest thing they ever heard.”
At the time, McKim took that feedback to heart. But his idea wasn’t set aside for long. “In 2010 I read an article saying that 85% of all tea that is consumed in the U.S. is consumed over ice. And that kind of rekindled my fire to improve cold brew.”
Let’s step back and talk about the precursor to nitro coffee: cold brew. In the early 2010s, there was pretty much one way most folks did it. You’d see baristas pull out huge buckets, dump pounds of ground coffee in with some sort of filter, and soak them overnight to produce a drink that was wildly different from traditional hot-brewed coffee. It was rich, chocolatey, heavy—and the bane of every barista’s existence.
Why? Because the cold-extraction process inherently masks many of the qualities that we have come to prize in coffee. The reason that most coffee is made using hot water and short brew times is to extract its pleasant, delicate flavors—think aromatic components like citrus, or jasmine. Cold brew stomps all over that, and people love it. Although nitro coffee doesn’t need to be cold brew, it’s highly unlikely we’d have nitro coffee without it.
According to a study released by the National Coffee Association, 79% of people polled know what cold brew is, and 20% of people drink it occasionally. Cold brew sales have soared 460% between 2015 and 2017, and there’s been no evidence that this growth will slow down anytime soon.
Tinkering with cold brew was what led McKim to nitro. “One night, I was up in the warehouse, and I had bought a four-pack of Left Hand Milk Stout. So I’m reading the bottle, you know, ‘Take the cap off [and] pour it hard into a glass,’ so I do that, and I watch the nitro cascade. And I was like, ‘This is actually kind of cool…how do you do this, and why can’t I do it with coffee?’”
He was on the phone with Left Hand the next day.
Former Left Hand head brewer Ro Guenzel gave McKim some tips, and he started experimenting by charging kegs of cold brew coffee with nitro. He debuted his kegged nitro cold brew at the Slow Food Quiz Bowl 2012 in Austin, and was blown away by the response. “All the chefs were like, ‘This is awesome.’ They probably drank too much of it. I doubt they slept that night.” After more tinkering, McKim and the team at Cuvee launched canned nitro cold brew in 2014. He worked with Ball (after contacting other beer folks over at Oskar Blues Brewery) to place a widget in the cans, and then Ball bought a huge ad in Times Square to celebrate the launch.
However, McKim isn’t the only one to lay claim to nitro coffee.
“Technically speaking, I invented nitro cold brew, or was at least the first person to make it and serve it publicly,” says Lorenzo Perkins, a former coffee professional and member of the executive board of the Barista Guild of America. “I started working for Cuvee in 2012 and that summer began a conversation with Collin Moody and Jesse Raub [both of Intelligentsia Coffee at the time] about how to improve cold brewed coffee. We discussed hot bloom cold brew, and all sorts of other weird things. It was through these conversations, among others, that I started experimenting with kegging iced coffee.”
Both McKim and Perkins agree that nitro cold brew debuted at the Slow Food Quiz Bowl—but that’s pretty much the only detail they agree on. “A shop in Austin, Cenote, was interested in serving this at their cafe,” Perkins says. “I started working with some Cornelius kegs and a simple regulator set up, taking a lot of cues from the beer homebrewing world. I was so excited to have the system complete!”
Things weren’t successful to begin with. “When it was set up, I had my friend Stephen Brown (a home enthusiast with a two group GB5 [espresso machine] in his house) come and take a look at it. He said it tasted great, but he was disappointed that there weren’t any bubbles like he was expecting. This of course hit my ego, and spurred me into a fervor of experimentation.”
Perkins, like McKim, has very specific memories of the events leading up to nitro cold brew’s creation, even recalling the time he tried serving coffee out of a Guinness tap. “We had some leftover Gesha coffee from Cerro Azul in Colombia. I decided to make that into nitro coffee as it was about to go stale and then become worthless.” Afterwards, he says he showed McKim, and was met initially with excitement.
“I showed what I had created to Mike, the owner of Cuvee, for the first time (after it was served at the Slow Food event and the system was installed at Cenote) and he was floored by it. We started working on designs to scale up production. I asked for compensation beyond my normal pay for this idea and product. He laughed. I left.”
Transforming nitro cold brew from idea to reality took McKim (or Perkins, depending on which version you choose to believe) almost half a decade, which seems surprising—breweries had already figured out how to charge beer with nitrogen, so why couldn’t coffee just borrow the formula? Blame science.
“Nitro beers have obviously been around for a while, and the weight and creaminess that it gives beer was something we wanted in coffee. The major difference is that a nitro beer typically also has some CO2,” says Brent Wolczynski, head brewer for Stumptown Coffee Roasters in Portland, Oregon. (If you needed another example of coffee borrowing from beer, we also stole the job titles we give our cold brew folks.)
When talking about kegged drinks, you’re usually working with one of two gases: nitrogen and carbon dioxide. A Guinness tap, for example, uses a 75/25 mix of nitrogen and carbon dioxide, but that combination doesn’t work in coffee. “The problem with CO2 in black coffee is it strips sweetness, so not having the sugars that are in beer to balance that, we need to use 100% N2,” Wolczynski explains. “Same effect, but without the little bite and effervescence a nitro beer would have.”
One of the easiest ways to taste what dissolved CO2 does to a drink is to try flat sparkling water—it’s going to be acidic. Carbon dioxide, which dissolves easily in liquids, makes beer pleasantly zippy while making coffee virtually undrinkable. Nitrogen, on the other hand, doesn’t dissolve easily, but adds its own qualities to drinks.
“Infusing a beverage with nitrogen softens the mouthfeel and gives it a bit [of a] richer and creamier taste perception,” says Brendan Hanson of Keg Outlet, an online supplier of kegging equipment. “While this works great for some styles of beer and some origins of coffee, it isn't necessarily the ‘right’ choice for all.”
This does make sense for the types of beers we normally see on nitro. “In the beer world, you tend to see darker beers served on nitro—Stouts and Porters.” Hanson says. “These styles of beers are typically brewed with ingredients that will yield many similarities to coffee, like roasted grains, oats, lactose, chocolate.”
So how do you choose which coffees to charge with nitrogen? Perkins explained that he essentially put a burner coffee on nitro for the purpose of experimentation. But if I looked at a menu serving the coffee he chose, a Gesha from Colombia that is generally prized for its delicacy and floral notes, I’d probably take a hike.
“As with beer, and all the different styles, not all can, should, or will be served on nitro, and I think the same consideration should be taken when deciding what coffees to serve on nitro,” Hanson suggests.“ For example, if you have a very bright/fruity/acidic coffee, you may not want to put it on nitro because it will ‘soften’ or lessen all of that brightness—those are characteristics that you may want to shine through, so maybe it should just be served flat rather than nitrogen-infused.”
Though nitro coffee is usually cold brew, the technique can be applied to an array of coffee styles and preparations, including what is either coffee’s greatest triumph or its worst abomination, depending on who you ask: the draft latte.
“A hot latte is coffee, milk, and it’s vapor. And I realized in the cold category, we didn’t have vapor,” said Todd Carmichael in an interview with Extra Crispy. Carmichael, CEO and co-founder of La Colombe Coffee Roasters, is credited with putting draft lattes on the market. After noticing that most of his consumers were ordering cold drinks, he started tinkering. His goal: to create cold beverages that were just as delicious as their hot counterparts.
As upsetting as cold brew has been for baristas, mentioning draft lattes might as well make their eyes fall out of their sockets. Draft lattes essentially remove the craft from making drinks—which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but certainly not what most folks signed up for when they started working with coffee. But instead of blaming Carmichael, perhaps we need to go back to the source.
Ultimately, nitro’s story circles back to Michael Ash, the man responsible for bringing nitro to Guinness.
[Disclosure: Guinness underwrites Good Beer Hunting's Mother of Invention series.]
According to the authorized Guinness biography of Ash, he wasn’t initially hired to develop technology for serving Guinness on draft. In fact, his “primary role was to seek to improve the shelf life of bottled Guinness.” Eventually he made it his mission to figure out the “draught problem,” as Guinness termed it, and, as a result, invented a process that would extend well beyond beer.
The success of his draft line was enough to solidify his place in beverage history. “The new system had been received enthusiastically and there had been 20–25% increase in trade in outlets converted to the new system,” the biography lays out.
I’m sure Ash never would have guessed that his invention would change coffee as well. Looking back on the emails, conversations, and even casual exchanges I’ve had with baristas about nitro coffee, almost all of them made the famous Guinness analogy. It’s a tool we use constantly to legitimize our products.
That said, I doubt most coffee folks could tell you who Michael Ash is. Which is kind of a bummer, because coffee and beer have been utterly transformed by nitro. And nitro probably isn’t done changing either of them.
So what will the coffee and beer industries look like five years from today? Wildly different, I’m sure. New ways to play with nitro will almost certainly arise—or maybe we’ll all be drinking nitro kombucha and questioning how we lived without it. Either way, it all comes back to one person—and one moment in time that forever changed how we drink.