4 things you need to know about nitro coffee, the ultra-hip coffee craze that is suddenly everywhere

It’s the best time of year, y’all: The time of year when it gets disgustingly hot and humid in the swamp and you’re dying walking down the sidewalk and oh, God this is it just when you think you’re going to perish I mean actually perish and die like some kind of overwrought bird whose bodily systems can’t stand up to extreme heat JUST AT THAT MOMENT you stumble into the exposed brick belly of a local coffee roaster and they give you a flimsy plastic cup with smooth, non-acidic, nirvanic cold brew to soothe your parched throat and give light and energy and cosmic juice to your pitifully flickering neurotransmitters. Tis the season, bitches. Iced coffee is back.  

It is a well-established fact that I enjoy a cup of coffee more than the average joe, but I pride myself on not being a snob about it. I enjoy truckstop brew probably more than a person really should enjoy truckstop brew, given that 90% of the time it is burned beyond recognition and its little dehydrated beans have probably been languishing in cellophane since approximately 1992—but I can’t help it, I love it, it’s like rocket fuel and I like living in a deeply unoriginal and pedestrian Kerouac fantasy leftover from when I was 16 when I’m on a road trip, so everyone can just shut up about it.

Anyway, my point is, of all the kinds of coffee I enjoy—red eye, black eye, JFK—by far and away my favorite is the iced coffee, and this summer, there’s a new game in town. It’s called nitro coffee and some hipsters in Florida have already built a tricycle with reclaimed wood to distribute it to the masses. Here are the four things you need to know about nitro in order to be so hip it hurts this summer:

What is nitro coffee.

Photo courtesy of my awesome friend Elizabeth Robins, who should be famous for being cool.

Using a gizmo that looks like a beer tap, baristas push cold brew through a pressurizer that infuses the coffee with tiny little nitrogen bubbles. The result is a coffee with a “foamy, cascading head, much like the one on a pint of Guinness”—or so says the inventor of one of these fancy machines, Charles Kleinrichert. It has a vaguely effervescent mouthfeel (yeah, I said it, do you want to fight about it?) and you can customize the amount of gas you use related to the kind of coffee to change the taste.

Some baristas use a combo of CO2 and nitrogen—Dolcezza’s mix is 75 percent nitrogen and 25 percent carbon dioxide, which makes it softly fizzy. The Slipstream team—Ryan Fleming and Miranda Mirabella—just keg their cold brew with nitrogen and leave it to sit for a couple days, periodically shaking up the kegs to infuse the nitro.

Also, if you’re a noob and don’t know the difference between cold brew and iced coffee: Iced coffee is just regularly-brewed coffee that is then served over ice. Cold brew coffee is just what it sounds like: Coffee grounds steeped in cold or room temperature water for as long as 24 hours. It’s potent, so a lot of places serve it over ice or a little watered down. But because Starbucks added it to their menus this year and pretty much destroyed any cool factor it previously possessed, baristas had to find a new niche way to serve their coffee to the ultra-hip. 

First things first. What’s the story on the caffeine content.

Magical. Tiny, tiny bees swirling around in a ray of abject golden sunlight while the glowing spores of pollen float up and catch the light in a beautiful effervescent tornado of joyous energy. According to Bon Appetit, some people think that the nitrogen contributes to increased absorption rates for caffeine; plus it is made from cold brew, which is naturally stronger. Of course, this is all ~food science~ so it’s probably two parts bullshit. I got a pretty good kick from it the other day and I’m kind of like Elvis—uppers, downers, 9,000 mgs of caffeine to wake up, Ambien to sleep—so there’s that.

For what it’s worth also, Dolcezza founder Robb Duncan said he’s “never been higher on coffee in my whole life” than when he first tasted multiple cups of nitro for, ya know, “research purposes.”

Twitter seems to be EXTREMELY PRODUCTIVE thanks to nitro, though: 

Why are people comparing it to craft beer.

"Serving something on tap captures the attention of people who are into forward beverages," June Blanks, founder of Junius Cold Brew Coffee Company, told The Washington Post. She says it gives cold brew coffee "the same level of excitement of craft beer,” aka one of the best/worst trends to happen to food in a long time on the quality/foodie-self-importance scale.

Basically (some say), the nitrogen helps bring out natural flavors in the coffee because it smooths out some of the acidity and bitterness of cold brew, allowing for the same kind of creativity that characterizes craft beer makers. Some coffeemakers believe nitro allows for a lot of customization in how a particular coffee tastes: "It’s a paradigm shifter in coffee and what coffee can be and what flavors you can get out of coffee," Duncan told The WaPo. Of course, there's some dispute about exactly how this works—some baristas are bigger believers than others. 

Nitro coffee also has the kind of marketing cachet enjoyed by many craft beers by virtue of being eminently 'grammable: The nitrogen bubbles drift elegantly down the inside of the glass like a tiny shower of lead-generating hashtags and fairy dust. “If you think about the way latte art has increased the popularity of espresso,” Stumptown director of cold-brew operations Diane Aylsworth told The New York Post, “the nitro cascade gives you the same type of visual experience.” (Stumptown is one of the pioneers of the nitro movement.)

Okay, I’m on board. Where can I get it in D.C.

One of Compass Coffee's two founders, kindly making this reporter an iced pour over behind the counter at their 7th Street location. Photo courtesy Robins. 

Dolcezza has a JoeTap system that costs about $4,500 per unit. Slipstream does their casking thing. But by far and away my favorite is Compass Coffee (not just because it’s owned by two smokin’ hot ex-marines who happen to be really nice and obsessed with the perfect cup of coffee). It’s fresh, creamy and incredibly smooth—I can drink it on an empty stomach in the morning. The Compass guys—Michael Haft and Harrison Suarez—actually built their own nitro tap, like they did practically everything else in their 7th Street shop, including welding the tables. The whole experience of drinking coffee here has a neighborhood-y, experimental feel that totally defies the pretension of craft coffee in general, and if you're going to hop on board the nitro train, this is the place to do it. 

As Suarez said: "People are starting to look at coffee as something more than just caffeine, that it can be a really exciting beverage."

If you just can't make it to the real thing, you’ll soon be able to get nitro coffee in a can from Stumptown, available overpriced at your local Whole Foods—assuming that all the cans survived being tossed around by ultra-masculine-looking hippies who ride a variety of non-motorized vehicles and still use a bow and arrow to hunt their caffeine in the wild.

You can also find Cuvee's Black and Blue nitro cans at Rose's Luxury in Capitol Hill.