April 6

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What is Nitro Cold Brew Coffee?

By Josh Spink

April 6, 2020

cold brew, nitro cold brew

Up until recently, nitro cold brew was the absolute hot trend in third wave, speciality coffee shops. In 2015, Starbucks starting selling nitro cold brew (or NCB for short) in most of their flagship stores. This caused many of the specialty places to lose interest but it can still be bought almost everywhere you can buy a coffee.

If you have been living under a rock, or you are a traditionalist, you might have no idea or not want to know what NCB is. Allow me to enlighten you in this article!

What is Nitro Cold Brew?

NCB is essentially cold brew that has nitrogen added to it. More specifically, nitrogen is released into the coffee using a pressurized valve that contains holes. High pressure then forces the nitrogen past a barrier in the tap and throughout the coffee. This creates the smooth, velvety head.

If you are unused to this idea, it might seem a bit random and strange. Why on earth would we add nitrogen to cold brew? Let’s see why this is such a great idea.

Nitro Beer – A Similar Drink?

The idea of adding nitrogen to beer was probably also considered insane when a certain Arthur Guinness started doing it in the 1950s. That’s right, Guinness is the original nitro draft beer. I’ll bet a pint of Guinness doesn’t seem strange to you!

Apart from Irish stout, nitro brewed beer of all types is very popular today in micro breweries and batch breweries alike.

Why do We Add Nitrogen to Beer?

Arthur Guinness realized that when he added nitrogen to beer it gave it a delicious creamy, smooth and sweet texture. It also served to make the carbon dioxide (a natural by-product in beer brewing) in the beer a lot less potent. This makes it much easier to drink. I can strongly attest to this. I am an Irish man and I was raised on Guinness.

It turns out, nitrogen and cold brewed coffee is also an extremely successful combination.

The History of Nitro Cold Brew

Nitro cold brew is only a very recent invention, on the scale of coffee history.

The precursor to nitro cold brew was draft coffee served by the Queens Kickshaw, a craft bar in New York, in 2011. This supposedly came about because a frustrated barman complained about the awkwardness of preparing cold brew when the bar was busy. The owner then suggested running cold brew through one of their beer taps to save time and voila, history was written.

Nitro Cold Brew Today

NCB in the form we know it today was originally created and sold by Cuvee Coffee – a speciality coffee company situated in Austin Texas, in 2013. Quickly after that, the company Stumptown in Portland Oregon also started brewing NCB before quickly marketing and selling it on a nationwide scale.

What Is the Point of Nitro Cold Brewing?

Does adding nitrogen to cold brew coffee make it better?

Yes, it improves the taste and the texture of the coffee.

When we add nitrogen to cold brew, it takes on the delicious creamy and sweet texture that is similar to the texture of Guinness. NCB also has that delicious creamy head that you find on top of Irish Stout. Indeed, nitro cold brew looks very similar to a pint of Guinness. I had to look twice when I walked past a coffee shop once and saw a customer there seemingly drinking Guinness.

The taste and texture make the drink very intriguing. It tastes creamy and sweet, but it is completely dairy free and sugar free. Nitro cold brew is essentially still a black coffee and contains next to no calories but it feels like a dessert. This is very enticing for people who love creamy, sweet coffee, especially if they are trying to diet!

The Science of Nitro Brewing

So why is a nitro cold brew so delicious and creamy? What causes this to happen?

Nitrogen is more or less insoluble in water. This fact causes the nitrogen to stay suspended in the cold brew, which creates that gorgeous texture and brew head. You can actually see the nitrogen micro bubbles swirling around when a nitro cold brew is poured from the tap. Yum!

Is Nitro Cold Brew Bad for You?

No, adding nitrogen to cold brew doesn’t have any known negative effects on health. Nitrogen is a natural gas that is in the air we breath after all.

NCB Health Benefits

The health benefits of nitro cold brew are mainly the same as the benefits of cold brew. As coffee drinkers, we all likely know that coffee contains antioxidants that help in fighting disease and can theoretically extend life span.

Cold brew is also advantageous because it is less acidic than its hotter counterpart. This is useful for people with sensitive stomachs. Less acid also means it is also less damaging for your teeth.

Why Does Nitrogen Go So Well with Cold Brew?

Cold Brew and Nitro Cold Brew Taps (image by Marco Verch @ Flickr)

This is a very good question. Nitrogen with cold brew is arguably a better pairing than nitrogen and beer.

Beer brewing purists are not very happy with the nitro brewing craze. When we add nitrogen to beer, it mutes the brighter flavors of beer. This is a very bad thing when it comes to the fruitier, hoppier craft beers such as an IPA or a fruity ale. Adding nitrogen to these beers, which is now common practice, takes away from their natural flavors and defeats the purpose of the whole brewing process.

Guinness on the other hand, as a barley beer, is naturally dark and does not have those brighter notes. This makes the recipe perfect for nitrogen.

The same goes for cold brew. Acidic, bright notes are not extracted from coffee beans unless they are brewed hot. A cold brew is therefore naturally much less acidic than hot coffee, but has more dark notes present in the cup.

Cold brewing also yields an extremely smooth coffee. The nitrogen compliments this perfectly. The result is a cold brew that is even more smooth and creamy, whilst still being refreshing and satiating.

The moral of the story here is that nitrogen is not suitable for all beer, or indeed for hot coffee, but it is the perfect addition to all cold brew.

Can You Make Nitro Cold Brew at Home?

The answer to this question is technically yes. The Splendid Table podcast have a method of home nitro cold brewing with an industrial whipping cream canister. Now, I’m talking about the big metal canisters you find in restaurants, not the plastic cans you pick up at the store. Industrial whipping cans are loaded with nitrogen capsules which are what give the device the power required for whipping cream.

This method can be applied to nitro cold brewing. The Splendid Table have also figured out a way to speed up the cold brewing process in general with these canisters. You can check out their method here.

The Simple Method to make Cold brew Nitro at Home

Buy It on Amazon here

You ca use a simpler method to make cold brew at home, though. The only disadvantage of this method is the volume of your prepared beverage, it’s about 1 pint, (500 ml). This is not too bad though, because you get two NCB servings per preparation.

You will need a cream whipper and Nitrogen cartridges. You can find these on Amazon here.

Pour your nitro cold brew – full-strength coffee – not concentrate – into the cream whipper and seal. Charge with one Nitrogen cartridge and shake for 30 seconds. Discharge the gas, open the canister, and pour in glasses over ice.

Advantages of Nitro Cold Brew Coffee

First and foremost, a major advantage of NCB is the amazing taste profile you get from it. As I mentioned, this is especially advantageous if you have a sweet tooth!

Secondly, the nitrogen acts as a natural preservative. Exposure to oxygen is what makes coffee go bad. Nitrogen forces the oxygen out of nitro cold brew and stops it oxidizing. This is one of the reasons nitrogen was added to beer in the first place.

Cold brew is already much longer lasting than hot coffee. Cold brew keeps for a week in the fridge without losing its gorgeous taste.

In a similar way to beer, nitro cold brew keeps its freshness for a long time when kept in a can. When I say a long time, I mean a year or more. This is quite different to a hot coffee, which is spoilt within a few minutes of brewing or even a bag of coffee beans, which have a shelf life of six weeks or so.

Disadvantages of NCB

The major disadvantages of nitro cold brew are that it’s expensive and cumbersome.

A coffee shop is not usually equipped with beer pumps. If they want to offer fresh nitro cold brew, a whole brewing apparatus needs to be installed. This is expensive. After installation, nitro cold brew is very easy going and takes next to no time to pull and serve. However the costly installation process radiates down to the customer. It is standard to pay upwards of $6 for a freshly poured nitro coffee.

The second disadvantage goes hand in hand with the first. Basically – installation is a real pain. That said, most coffee shops have realized or decided that setting up nitro cold brew is well worth the investment in the long run. 

Whether or not you think you will be a fan of this very different caffeinated beverage, you’ve got to give it a try. It is a unique experience and the timing is ideal coming into the warmer months. Push yourself out of your comfort zone and get on it!

Josh Spink

About the author

My name is Joshua and i am an Irish opera singer and writer. I love writing about coffee, food, wellness and culture. My love for coffee comes from growing up in my parent’s coffee shop and later on, working as a barista in specialty coffee shops in Dublin. I am fascinated by the health benefits of coffee drinking and I am an advocate of moderate coffee consumption as part of a healthy lifestyle.

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