Nitrogen is a clear, odourless, and tasteless gas that has long been used to preserve food and drink products. Over the past 50 years or so, brewers have also used it to transform the taste and texture of beer, making it smoother, sweeter and giving it a thicker, silkier head of foam.
However, more recently, baristas have started experimenting with nitrogen when preparing coffee. Arguably, the most popular innovation is the nitro latte. Nitrogen infusion transforms the latte from a hot, milky beverage into a rich and creamy drink that’s usually served chilled.
These qualities have boosted the nitro latte’s popularity in the specialty coffee sector. Furthermore, its body and sweetness can appeal to customers craving a coffee drink free from added sugars and preservatives.
I spoke to three experts to get a better understanding of this unique drink and its place in specialty coffee. Read on to learn about its origins and what you need to consider when adding it to your menu.
You might also like our article on how café owners can tap into the cold brew market.
The origins of the nitro latte
Regardless of who prepared the first nitro latte, they have Michael Ash of Guinness Beers to thank for the inspiration. When beer ferments it becomes slightly carbonated. However, this effect fades away over time and will disappear if the drink isn’t sealed in a container. Subsequently, in the 1950s, pubs had little choice but to stock fresh and near stale beers at the same time.
Ash proposed adding nitrogen to the beer, as it doesn’t dissolve as easily as carbon dioxide. When the nitrogen-enriched beer was pulled through a restrictor plate, it created a desirable foamy head and made the beer richer and sweeter.
Earlier experiments with carbonating coffee were far from promising. Carbon dioxide dissolves quickly in coffee and leaves behind a bitter, astringent taste. However, nitrogen is inert, meaning that it doesn’t dissolve or add any undesirable flavours. It also displaces oxygen, which helps preserve the coffee’s freshness.
Mild nitrogen carbonation gives coffee a cascading flow of “top to bottom” bubbles reminiscent of a freshly poured glass of stout. It also complements RTD offerings, as nitrogen preserves and enhances coffee’s aromas and flavours in a can or bottle.
How do baristas prepare their nitro lattes?
Most cafés dispense nitro lattes using a tap system that allows them to pull each drink on demand. This ensures that each glass displays the signature bubbly “head” of foam. These systems generally draw the coffee from a keg, using a pressurised valve that infuses it with nitrogen.
Marian Plajdicko is co-owner of Happy Baristas in Germany. He says his nitro latte is a version of a classic iced latte.
“Instead of building the drink in a glass with a freshly pulled espresso shot, the drink is prepared in advance,” he says. “Coffee and milk are mixed together and put into a keg, charged with nitrogen, and served from a tap.”
Justin Real is co-owner of Dark Heart Coffee Bar in Colorado. He also uses espresso, but creates a vegan nitro latte with oat milk. He says uses a tap system, tabletop infuser, or a nitrogen cartridge system for nitrogen infusion.
Justin explains: “We pull about 60 double espresso shots into a keg. We add 15 cartons of oat milk as well as syrups and other ingredients. We infuse it with nitrogen and let it rest a few days before serving.”
It is worth noting that this system may not necessarily be approved for widespread use everywhere. In the US in particular, the FDA has stringent restrictions regarding dairy dispensing – so make sure you check with a regulator if you’re not sure.
Eli Salomon is the CEO of Ground Control in California. Instead of espresso, Eli uses the Ground Control brewer to create a concentrate that he uses in his nitro lattes. He says that this works better when preparing larger volumes.
He says: “Concentrated coffee for iced lattes is traditionally made two ounces at a time with espresso machines, but cafés are turning to other methods of producing concentrate at larger scale.”
All three experts agree that nitrogen does something “special” to the drink. For Justin, it preserves the latte and prevents it from developing old or aged flavours.
“Something happens once it’s kegged,” he says. “Its flavours and textures become more harmonious than a standard latte.”
Who does the nitro latte appeal to?
Firstly, the nitro latte’s bubbly texture, sweetness, and cold temperature mean that it’s often popular with people who already enjoy cold milk-based coffee drinks. Justin in particular says that the drink tends to appeal to the “more adventurous”.
Eli expands on this, adding that nitro lattes reflect the innovation of the modern coffee sector. He also says that it’s become a popular summertime drink in the USA.
“They’re experimental but accessible,” he says. “They seem technically challenging, but can be cheaply and easily made for crowds of iced latte drinkers.”
Because of its natural sweetness and creaminess, the nitro latte is a healthier alternative to drinks like frappuccinos, which are often heavily sweetened and with rich toppings.
According to baristas who have prepared nitro beverages, infusing coffee with nitrogen can take even the most bitter cup and make it taste like it contains sugar and cream.
Eli continues: “Nitro lattes are like regular iced lattes except noticeably sweeter and with a much creamier texture – often like that of a milkshake – with the same calories as a traditional iced latte. They’re more delicious and indulgent than their traditional iced latte predecessors, which were already tasty to begin with.”
Furthermore, the specific method of preparation can shape who it appeals to. When made with espresso, it retains some of the intensity and bitterness of the underlying coffee. Alternatively, making it with cold brew tends to flatten the taste, making it sweeter and milder.
Finally, the speed at which it can be served makes it popular with both baristas and customers.
Marian says: “In summer, nitro lattes are our best selling drink and I definitely think it will stay with us for a very long time.
“It only takes about 20 seconds to serve it to a customer, instead of the usual minute and a half it takes to make a classic iced latte with a freshly pulled espresso shot.”
Will it remain popular?
Considering that specialty coffee culture is open to experimentation and creativity, Eli thinks there’s a big future for the nitro latte.
“At the start of the specialty coffee movement, we saw a strong trend away from flavourings, as traditional syrups can overpower and overshadow delicate coffee notes,” he explains.
“We’re now seeing some specialty cafés recognise the value of carefully balancing coffee with flavours as exotic as watermelon and sichuan peppercorn, and traditional flavours like maple syrup and cereal-infused milk.”
One of the biggest barriers may be the cost of a nitrogen infusion system. Incorporating a nitrogen system into your business can be costly at the outset. You’ll need to consider the cost of the keg equipment, nitro tap, gas lines, tanks, and other brewing and cleaning equipment. Then there’s the labour required to clean and maintain the entire system.
Eli adds that speed is important, and convenience is a factor for the consumer. “We see nitro lattes remaining popular in cafés that have mastered the ability to rapidly brew and serve them, because of their popularity with customers.
“The challenge occurs when cafés try to make their drinks with slow, individually poured espresso, or through inconsistent methods that produce less sweet, more muted results. This results in customer disappointment.”
The nitro latte’s natural effervescence also means it could prove a popular addition to cocktails. Marian, for example, says he has used it as a base for a simple summery cocktail.
“We added coffee liqueur, black walnut bitters, and grated nutmeg, and it turned out to be an enjoyable summer breakfast drink,” he tells me.
Many craft beer brewers are purists and prefer not to use nitrogen in their beer over concerns over how it might impact its flavour. Some specialty coffee enthusiasts might feel the same way, but the nitro latte has already gained plenty of popularity in spite of that.
While this sweet and foamy beverage won’t appeal to everyone, it certainly does have its audience. And with evidence suggesting that nitro will continue to grow in the weeks and months to come, it doesn’t seem like it’s going anywhere anytime soon.
Enjoyed this? Then read our article on adding coffee cocktails to your coffee shop menu.
Photo credits: Unsplash
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