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Here's where you can find this cascading, creamy iced Joe.

Jenny McCoy
March 21, 2018

It’s spring—which means it’s officially iced coffee season. This year, celebrate the warmer temps with a creamier, more decadent version of chilled Joe that borrows inspiration from beer. Nitro cold brew has been popping up on coffee shop menus since (at least) 2015, and here’s what you need to know about this growing trend.

What is nitro cold brew?

The name is fancy, but the concept is actually quite simple. Generally put, nitro cold brew is coffee that is steeped in cold water—and then infused with nitrogen bubbles.

How did it become a “thing”?

“The idea comes from beer,” Brent Wolczynski, head brewer of cold brew at Portland-based Stumptown Coffee, tells Cooking Light. “With Guinness, they dissolve nitrogen into the solution to give it that heavy body and creamy mouthfeel.”

Why not, thought brewers, try this technique with coffee?

Stumptown’s brewers began experimenting with nitro cold brew more than three years ago and released its 11-oz. canned version in April 2015. That summer, local coffee shops across the country started offering the extra creamy elixir on tap, and the trend went mainstream in August 2016 when Starbucks launched its own draft nitro brew at 500 U.S. stores.

RELATED: Craft a Better Cold Brew: Homemade Coffee Ice Cubes

How is it made?

When Stumptown’s brewers first started playing with nitro brews, the production method was...rudimentary.

“We were hooking up kegs of coffee to nitrogen and shaking them,” says Wolczynski. “But eventually that got ridiculous—and it also hurt our backs.”  

Nowadays, nitro cold brew is crafted through more precise methods. It begins as regular cold brew, aka coffee steeped in cold water, as compared to regular iced coffee, which is hot coffee that is later chilled. The cold water brewing method creates a sweeter, smoother tasting Joe, and certain nitro cold brews, like Stumptown’s, are created with a higher concentration of coffee. “We feel that the coffee needs to have a stronger profile to stand up to the nitrogen,” Wolczynski explains.

The cold brew is then pumped through a special device that infuses it with pure nitrogen—or a combination of nitrogen and CO2.

It’s easier to dissolve nitrogen into a solution when CO2 is present, explains Wolczynski, which is why Guinness and certain types of nitro cold brew also contain carbon dioxide. But because CO2 can give the the cold brew a bitter taste, some producers, like Stumptown, use only nitrogen. Either way, the gaseous infusion creates a thick, silky and stout-like effect.

How does it compare to regular cold brew?

The nitrogen provides “weight and gives it texture,” says Wolczynski, which results in a smoother, foam-infused version of cold brew. It also removes some of the unwanted bitterness and acidity.

There’s also the “cool” factor. If you order a nitro cold brew on draft, you’ll receive a “cascading, beautiful product,” says Wolczynski, that’s much more visually appealing (read: Instagram-worthy) than a regular ol’ cup of iced black Joe.

RELATED: Is Cold Brew As Healthy as Regular Coffee?

How should I drink nitro cold brew?

Because of its naturally velvety texture, nitro cold brew can be a great option for “someone who doesn’t want to consume dairy but does want a creamy effect,” says Wolczynski. He prefers his nitro cold brew sans milk or sugar, but there’s no wrong way to drink coffee, so consume it however you please.

Where can I find it?

Starbucks’s draft nitro cold brew is available at locations across the country, and Stumptown’s nitro cold brew is available in 11-oz. cans in most Whole Foods and on tap at Stumptown Cafes. Other nitro purveyors include The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf and Rise Brewing Co., as well as many local Joe joints in the U.S.