Coffee infused with nitrogen gas? It's coming to a Starbucks near you. By the end of summer 2016, over 500 Starbucks locations will serve nitro coffee, a cold brew that has been infused with nitrogen, chemical element number 7.
Nitro coffee first hit the market in 2011 or 2012 (claims vary). In June 2013, Portland-based Stumptown Coffee Roasters installed nitrogen taps at its cafes. In 2015, by popular demand, Stumptown began canning its nitro. Late last year, Caribou Coffee, which is based in Minnesota, introduced nitro coffee on tap; by this past February 25 of its more than 600 locations offered the drink. This July, Starbucks becomes the third — and by far largest — chain to serve nitro, a coffee beverage known for having a rich, creamy mouthfeel and sweet flavor.
Imagine a coffee that looks like a Guinness: Dark, but effervescent, and with a foamy head on top. That's what nitro looks like. But it tastes nothing like beer. Nitro is made when cold brew coffee is joined by nitrogen gas in a refrigerated tank. The amount of gas added varies, but generally falls around 20 percent by volume. The beverage emerges from a tap looking like a cascade of brown liquid. Its taste is the most surprising thing about it: like an iced coffee that already has cream and a touch of sugar added. In fact, it is completely sugar- and dairy-free. Nitro coffee contains only cold brew coffee and nitrogen.
According to Mackenize Karr, a coffee education specialist with Starbucks, cold brew coffee is used because of its smooth, less-acidic flavors. "Nitro coffee has been under development at Starbucks for about a year," Karr says, "and cold brew was a natural choice given the blend of beans and quality of roast." Starbucks cold brew coffee is brewed from an entirely different roast than what it uses for its iced coffee.