You know that drink that looks more like a glass of beer than a cup of coffee? It doesn’t have ice like a cold brew and it’s creamier than your average cup of bean juice. The foamy crema head and luxurious cascade down the side of your cup are signatures of a nitro cold brew, one of the trendiest cold coffee beverages to hit the market since, I don’t know, a Frappuccino.
Nitro coffee climbed in popularity on the back of cold brew, but it’s having a serious moment, with coffee shops (Starbucks included) installing taps to add the creamy concoction to their beverage lineups. However, because it requires special equipment, this is not a drink you can make at home, as you could for traditional cold brew. The nitrogen-infused beverage offers a smooth and creamy mouthfeel without the need for added creamer, making it a great option for non-dairy consumers or coffee-drinkers who wouldn’t dare drink their coffee black.
The flavor of nitro emulates the profile of a stout beer (think Guinness), and being dispensed from a tap the same way as beer, the two are almost indistinguishable at first glance. But what gives this breed of craft coffee its distinct texture and richness?
Related: This Basic Cold Brew Recipe Will Make Your Mornings SO Much Better
Nitro coffee is a derivative of cold brew that is made after the cold brew has steeped completely. The cold brew concentrate is transferred to a keg where it is infused with nitrogen, the invisible, odorless gaseous element (or N on the periodic table as you might remember from 9th grade Chemistry).
So, why isn’t its fizz the same as a carbonated soda’s?
It comes down to the structure of the molecules, and to keep it short and sweet, N2 weighs less than CO2. Your cup of nitro has millions of microbubbles inside, but they’re smaller and lighter than the bubbles in a carbonated drink, making the beverage smoother, frothier, and less harsh to drink.
Starting with a cold brew base means that the coffee concentrate was brewed cold rather than hot, creating a less acidic coffee product. The result is a natural sweetness from the coffee bean that isn’t unlocked in hot coffee.
Related: Balsamic Cold Brew Recipe
The mesmerizing cascade is caused by a current of nitrogen microbubbles within the cup. You might only see the coffee falling down the sides, but in the center of the cup, nitrogen bubbles are rising and bringing up coffee with them. When they reach the top and have nowhere else to go, they fall, delicately and gracefully, back into your cup. Isn’t science beautiful?
If you’re looking to test out your tastebuds to black coffee, nitro cold brew is probably the most approachable way to try it out. The velvety mouthfeel and natural sweetness make it seem like mother nature whipped you up a latte, no dairy or sweetener required. A cold coffee phenomenon has taken hold, and nitro, we’re happy to have you on board.
If nitro on tap isn’t available at your coffee shop, you can find it canned from a number of national producers, including La Colombe, RISE Brewing Co., or Cold Brew Coffee Co.
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