Starbucks joins the nitro coffee trend

More than 500 Starbucks locations will serve nitro coffee – coffee infused with nitrogen gas – by the end of summer 2016. 

Paul Sakuma/AP
Starbucks logo is seen outside a franchise store in Mountain View, Calif.

Starbucks is taking on the newest trend in bean brewing: coffee infused with nitrogen gas. More than 500 Starbucks locations will serve nitro coffee by the end of summer 2016. The drink will be made from a cold brew, infused with chemical element No. 7 – nitrogen – which gives the coffee a creamier texture and sweeter taste.

The nitro coffee trend began around 2011. By 2013, Stumptown Coffee Roasters, a Portland-based chain, began installing nitrogen taps in its various cafes, and in 2015, it started canning its nitro coffee, as well. Minnesota-based Caribou Coffee also introduced nitro coffee on tap in late 2015, as did the East Coast-based La Colombe, which offers nitro coffee, served black or as a latte.

Starbucks' foray into nitro coffee may be an example of "masstige" or making a prestige or luxury item available at a price point for a mass consumer audience. The company itself has largely been built on taking a basic commodity, coffee, and turning it into a more upscale experience. No decaf version will be available.

In July, Starbucks will become the largest chain to serve nitro coffee, which it will start serving in waves around the country. Four locations in Seattle already serve nitro coffee, and by the end of the summer, locations in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, and Boston will serve it, as well.

"Nitro coffee has been under development at Starbucks for about a year," Mackenzie Karr, coffee education specialist at Starbucks tells "Cold brew was a natural choice given the blend of beans and quality of roast." Ms. Karr added that cold brew is used because of its smooth flavors, which are less acidic. Starbucks' cold brew coffee is also brewed from a completely different roast than what it uses for its iced coffee.

Cold brew coffee looks and feels something like a draught beer, which is also infused with nitrogen: Both are dark and topped with a foamy head. Nitro coffee is made when cold brew coffee and nitrogen gas are combined at around 20 percent volume in a refrigerated tank. It has the texture of ice coffee, but is frothier, feeling as if it already has cream and sugar added, but is in fact free of dairy and sugar. Starbucks' nitro coffee will be served on ice and directly from the tap, similar to how beer is served.

"We start with a small, chilled keg of Starbucks Cold Brew coffee," said Anthony Carroll of Starbucks in a press release."Then it's infused with nitrogen, which unlocks the super-smooth, natural sweetness of the Cold Brew coffee, which then cascades from the tap with a velvety texture you can see and taste."

A grande, 16-ounce nitro coffee will cost between $3.25 and $3.95, depending on the location, which is about a dollar more than regular iced coffee and a bit more than a cold brew coffee, which costs $3.25. A 12-ounce cup of nitro coffee at Stumptown sells for about $4.50.

"Cold coffee is now becoming a go-to drink," wrote Howard Schultz, Starbucks chairman and chief executive officer, in a press release titled "Starbucks to Seize Multi-Billion Dollar Cold Coffee Market." Starbucks apparently expects to double its cold coffee sales over the next three years.

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