Forget the Cream and Sugar: Nitrogen Is Coffee's New Best Friend
A little nitro with that?
In recent months the East Bay has emerged as the epicenter of the latest innovative trend to storm the food scene: effervescent cold-brew coffee on tap, infused with nitrogen to give it a foamy head like Guinness stout.
The edgy sobriquet "nitro" — referencing the old military nickname for explosive nitroglycerin, but in our case simply short for "nitrogen" — has emerged as the de rigueur slang term for this new coffee format, to highlight the growing anecdotal evidence that it somehow mainlines the caffeine directly to your brain more quickly than plain ol' espresso.
We tried our first shot of nitro coffee at the booth operated by Oakland's Peerless Coffee at last week's Fancy Food Show and can testify that this could indeed be the next big thing: the unexpected foamy intensity makes coffee exciting again.
Nitro coffee is often (but not always) cold-brewed -- a technique for making coffee using only cold water steeped in the grounds overnight —because the low-acid smooth intensity of cold-brew seems to pair perfectly with the velvety creaminess of nitrogenization.
What differentiates "nitrogenization" from more familiar "carbonization" is that nitrogen bubbles are much smaller and more numerous than the carbon dioxide bubbles you normally find in beer and soda, tricking the mouth into feeling that nitrogenated liquids are thicker and fuller and creamier -- exactly what you want in a coffee. The finicky process for imparting nitrogen gas into coffee was co-pioneered in 2013 by Portland, Oregon-based Nate Armbrust for local roastery Stumptown Coffee, and independently by Mike McKim for Cuvée Coffee in Austin, Texas, and from there the idea has slowly begun to catch on in hipster enclaves across the nation — with Oakland naturally being among the first to jump on the nitro bandwagon.
Peerless Coffee is still in the process of installing their nitro tap at their Oakland cafe (260 Oak St.), and by mid-February will be offering nitrogen-infused Sea Smoke blend to customers. But many East Bay cafes and roasters have already become early adopters of the technology:
Highwire Coffee is leading the charge, offering "Howling Wolf" -- a coffee blend custom-designed for cold-brewing and nitrogenization -- not only at both their East Bay brick-and-mortar locations (5655 College Ave. in Oakland, and 2049 San Pablo Ave. in Berkeley), but also installing special Howling Wolf nitro taps at local partner restaurants Cafe Underwood (308 41st St., Oakland) and Drake's Dealership (2325 Broadway, Oakland).
Mr. Espresso, the venerable Oakland coffee wholesaler, has leapt onto the nitrogen train as well, supplying their dark roast Bolivian blend to customized nitro taps at Steel Rail (439 Water St., Oakland) and further afield at East Bay Coffee (2529 San Pablo Ave. in Pinole).
Walnut Creek's buzzy new ultra-hip and simply named Coffee Shop now also offers Oakland's own "Black Medicine" nitro blend on tap to early adopters in Contra Costa County (1321 Locust St., Walnut Creek).
If nitro is so great, why doesn't everybody offer it?
The roadblock thus far preventing more rapid expansion of nitro brew into every cafe is that most folks don't have the engineering and chemistry skills required to hand-build their own nitrogen tap systems, which until now was the only way to get one. Stepping into that void is JoeTap, a new Maryland-based company which just came out with the first plug-and-play pre-assembled nitrogen-tap coffee dispenser, meaning soon even the humblest of corner cafes can easily put nitro on the menu.
Over-enthusiastic food writers often mistakenly claim that nitro brew coffee "tastes like beer," but that's not actually true; instead, it feels like beer on the tongue while retaining an intense coffee flavor. But if the idea of nitrogen/coffee/beer intrigues you, Samuel Adams Brewery has just introduced the ultimate mashup, Nitro Coffee Stout; they somehow figured out how to achieve and maintain nitrogenization inside a can (no mean technological feat) and combined classic stout with old-school coffee. It should hit the shelves in a week or two.
Where to Drink Nitro Coffee on Tap in the East Bay
Cafe Underwood, 308 41st St.
Drake's Dealership, 2325 Broadway
Highwire Coffee, 5655 College Ave.
Steel Rail, 439 Water St.
Peerless Coffee 260 Oak St. (coming soon in mid-February)
Highwire Coffee, 2049 San Pablo Ave.
Coffee Shop, 1321 Locust St.,
East Bay Coffee, 2529 San Pablo Ave.