Forget sugar and milk froth. The trendiest thing to put into coffee is the odourless, transparent and diatomic nitrogen. Known as nitro coffee, this new concoction is fizzy, creamy and looks deceptively like a glass of stout.
Blame it on the head that forms on top of the drink when poured straight from the tap like cold beer. It even leaves a “beer moustache” on the upper lip when you take the first few sips. But rest assured that there is nothing alcoholic about nitro coffee that tastes rich, slightly sweet and has a whole lot of fizz. Reactions on social media, however, state that nitro coffee is an acquired taste.
Although its exact origins are difficult to pinpoint, Cuvee Coffee CEO Mike McKim claims that his Austin, Texas based coffee brand is the first to introduce nitro coffee in 2012. Last year, the coffee company started producing canned nitro coffee which are available in major retail outlets in the United States.
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Cafes around the world followed suit, and drafted nitro coffee is finally gaining traction in Malaysia. A few cafes in the Klang Valley started experimenting with nitro coffee late last year, and have now included this once-novel drink as part of their repertoire.
“Specialty coffee has evolved to the next level, from the way of preparing the coffee to its texture,” says Degayo Coffee executive director Jasen Lee. “Adding nitrogen changes the taste profile and the dynamics of coffee.” Degayo serves nitro coffee (RM17) at its coffee bar in Jibby East in Kuala Lumpur.
It’s all about science
Cold brewed black coffee is used to make nitro coffee. It is made by steeping roasted ground coffee beans in cold water (with or without refrigeration) for about 18 to 24 hours. This is considered a far gentler infusion process that produces low acidity coffee, which makes cold brew coffee naturally sweeter.
“Cold brewing reduces unpleasant coffee characteristics like bitterness and oiliness. This is different from coffee that is extracted from the espresso machine,” says Lee.
The type of coffee beans affects the taste of nitro coffee. “It depends on individual preference. We want to present nitro coffee that is not overpowered by the coffee. We use medium bodied coffee, as we don’t want our customers to take one sip and say that the coffee is too strong. We want it to be light, easy and flavourful,” he adds.
Cold brew is typically more potent than regular coffee hence why nitro coffee drinkers get that coffee buzz quicker than when drinking hot coffee.
“This is the first part where you get to control how nitro coffee tastes like in the end – by using appropriate grammage of coffee, the quality, amount and temperature of water, and the duration of cold brewing. The next part is controlling the amount of gas used in the infusion,” says Lee.
There are several ready-made cold brew and nitro coffee “kegerators” in the market that allows you to start serving cold brew and nitro coffee on draft. Some cafes, like Degayo at Jibby East, however prefers to use custom-built equipment to make the drink.
Nevertheless, it is important to note that when serving acidic beverages on draft, all components must be made of stainless steel. Otherwise, the acid will corrode and ruin the components which would result in cafe owners having to replace the equipment often.
Once the cold brew is ready, the keg is connected to a canister that supplies a steady stream of gas.
“This is when you decide if you want to infuse the cold brew with 100% nitrogen, or a mix of nitrogen and carbon dioxide,” says Lee.
The nitrogen lends a sweet note to the coffee and gives it its creamy texture. The carbon dioxide will dissolve completely in the coffee, unlike the nitrogen, and give it its fizzy element.
“Carbon dioxide also adds acidity to the coffee, so you don’t want to have too much of that either,” says Lee.
The amount of each gas in the tank can be customised according to the type of cold brew coffee to make it creamier, fizzier or sweeter. Every cafe can give its own take on nitro coffee by tweaking elements like coffee beans, gas mixtures, pressures, temperatures and so on.
Once the gas is streamed into the cold brew, it is then infused for at least 12 to 24 hours depending on the size of the keg. A 20-litre keg can accommodate 2 litres of nitrogen and takes at least 16 hours for infusion.
The infusion is also affected by temperature inside the keg and it is best done between 4°C to 8°C. This is also mainly the reason why hot coffee cannot be used to make nitro coffee.
“It takes a lot of trial and error to know how much nitrogen and carbon dioxide to use, how long to infuse them and the best environment it works in. We took at least six months to come up with our final product,” adds Lee.
When the infusion is completed, the keg is then connected to a dispenser tap and the nitro coffee is ready to be drafted. The coffee can be kept in the keg for up to two weeks.
Keeping it interesting
Nitro coffee may already be a novelty drink but some cafes are taking it a step further in making it more interesting for their clientele.
Bean Reserve in Bangsar offers Nitro White (RM16) a milk-based nitro coffee. In this version, their cold brew with milk is infused with nitrogen. It can be kept in the keg for up to two weeks depending on the shelf life of the milk, although at Bean Reserve, the keg empties in less than two days.
“We realised that many of our customers couldn’t drink black coffee, but we didn’t want them to miss out on the nitro coffee craze. So, we decided to introduce Nitro White and the response has been amazing so far,” says Bean Reserve owner Jeremy Chan.
The milk-based coffee has an added creamy texture and like its black counterpart, is best enjoyed without any added sugar or creamer.
And at Brewmen in Solaris Mont Kiara, a scoop of ice cream can be added to the nitro coffee to give it a “float” effect. Talk about a childhood favourite with a twist!
Although coffee purist would argue that nitro coffee goes against their belief, Chan says that nitro coffee still follows the characteristics of specialty coffee.
“We use really good coffee to make nitro coffee and only use the best products when making the drink,” he says.
“And this is not all. After nitro coffee, there will be so much more to come.”