You’ve already gulped craft beer and sipped artisanal pour-over. So naturally you’ve moved on to nitro cold brew. At least, Starbucks hopes you have—or that you will. Later this summer, the coffee giant will start dispensing this slightly sour, vaguely effervescent, nitrogen-infused version of cold coffee at 500 US stores. Selling coffee that’s dispensed like beer might seem like no big deal. But for the world’s biggest coffee chain, it’ll be a logistical feat.
Nitro cold brew actually combines two sets of expertise—coffee made slowly with cold water, and then run through a nitrogen-powered tap. In a sense, it’s a combination of coffee nerdery and obscure craft beer snobbery, powered by local, artisanal-aspiring coffeehouses. Sales jumped 338.9 percent between 2010 and 2015, according to Starbucks’ market research, largely spearheaded by Portland-based Stumptown Coffee Roasters (owned by Starbucks rival Peet’s Coffee and Tea). So it’s no surprise that the world’s largest coffee chain would want to get in on the action. But the big question is how Starbucks will manage to scale so much fizz.
In fact, Starbucks already makes cold-brew in house, soaking beans for 20 hours. Adding nitrogen and dispensing it from a tap makes for a certain kind of coffee house theater, giving you a creamy pour that looks more like a Guinness. It’s a performance that requires a lot of equipment, and it’s neither cheap nor simple to maintain.
The big question is how Starbucks can scale so much fizz.
A single nitro cold brew coffee tap system involves a lot of parts, from the tubes and nozzles to the kegs themselves, which will hold the cold brew but also the nitrogen. Those tap systems can run about $500 to $1,000 a pop, says John Craven, CEO of BevNet, a trade publication that covers the beverage industry. Add that up across 500 stores and you’re looking at up to half a million dollars toward equipment alone to serve a cold coffee drink that’s slated to be available right at the end of summer, just before people start pining for pumpkin spice lattes.
Highwire Coffee Roasters in the San Francisco Bay Area started serving its Howling Wolf nitro coffee a little over a year ago, enlisting the help of a local brewery. The fizzy, cold drink is a hit at the local farmers’ markets, says Cody Gordon, Highwire’s wholesale manager. But while Highwire runs just about half a dozen nitrogen kegs and coffee taps in one city, Starbucks plans to install 500 of them, each requiring constant maintenance.
As part of the roll-out, Starbucks has been working with nitrogen keg vendors to set up a system for picking up and dropping off spent kegs. But managing kegs isn’t easy. Baristas will have to go through training on how to clean, sanitize, and switch out new kegs, tubes, and nozzles.
Each of the pilot stores will have a two-tap system installed, says Holly Shafer, a Starbucks spokesperson—one for regular cold brew coffee and one for nitrogen. You’ll be able to order your drink with or without the velvety bubbles, but meanwhile baristas will have to fill kegs somewhere in the back of the cafe. That’s fine for coffee, but not nitrogen: All that gas under pressure is dangerous.
“You can’t have someone filling a pressurized keg in the back of a Starbucks,” Craven says. To remedy this, Starbucks will partner with nitrogen vendors who will swap out the kegs when the gas runs out.
And as for the coffee, once a filled keg is empty, it can’t be instantly refilled. Beer brewers usually have a system in place for collecting and reusing metal kegs, which is why you pay a deposit when you buy a keg for a party. Starbucks hasn’t said whether they plan to set up such a system, but they are using traditional metal kegs just like a beer brewery would use, says Shafer.
As individual baristas are trained on the new equipment, they’ll need to know how to tap each keg and monitor the pour to make sure each cup is getting just the right amount of nitrogen. “Consistency and automation are paramount to their success with this,” Craven says.
Still in Development
“Nitro” might be the cool new coffee shop trend, but its nascent arrival means coffee makers are still figuring out how to make it taste better, says Gordon. Philadelphia-based La Colombe cafe is experimenting with the next iteration—nitro lattes on tap, adding a dairy-based dimension to nitrogenated coffee drinks. The reception has been … mixed.
“Figuring out how to get a gas into a liquid that doesn’t want to go into it and then how to get it to escape that liquid at the right time is a fine science,” Gordan says. “It’s still imperfect.”
‘You can’t have someone filling a pressurized keg in the back of a Starbucks.’
Still, with rivals moving in on the market, Starbucks isn’t in a position to sit this one out, says Craven. Just as large beer companies are buying up smaller craft breweries, companies like Starbucks are fighting to stay hip. Even if nitro is just a passing trend, serving it could help Starbucks recover some of the urban identity that it lost to minimally decorated cafes with monosyllabic names. Even if Starbucks’ nitro is a flop, the investment might be worth the risk purely for the brand cachet, Craven explains, especially when independent coffee shops are charging upwards of $5 a cup for the strange brew.
Whether or not Starbucks plans to make nitro cold brew a long-term investment, the chain is expanding its cold coffee drinks over the summer to include not just nitro but also double shots of espresso on ice and cold brew with a vanilla-flavored sweet cream. “We see our customers latching on to cold coffees,” Shafer says. “This is a natural next step for us.”
In the worst-case scenario, the hype around nitro dies out just as Starbucks manages to bring its nitro operations to scale. Still, even that might not be such a bad thing. Since 2010, the company has been working its way into the cafe-bar scene, serving wine and beer at several stores around the world. So hey, if all else fails they could recycle the coffee taps for beer.
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