The last time I stayed in a luxury hotel in Japan, I spotted an exciting machine in the hotel lobby. The labeling on the device said it was a coffee machine, but instead of cups, it had champagne-style glasses around it—my curiosity was piqued instantly. On the coffee machine, it said 'Cold Crema Coffee'; keen on solving the mystery of this cold crema coffee, I poured myself a glass from the tap attached to it and watched as the thick black liquid slowly filled the glass. Simultaneously, a cascade of gorgeous bubbles started falling to the glass's bottom, forming a rich, smooth foam on top. When the drink was ready in the glass, the magnificent foam and the dark body reminded me of a classic Irish stout. I must have been staring at the beauty of the drink for too long as the drink server who was watching me suggested humbly with a smile in polite Japanese, 'I would suggest you drink it without adding any milk or sugar, straight black, and the best drinking time is when the foam has settled at the top." I took a sip, and once the velvety foam danced around in my mouth, followed by the full-bodied coffee, I had an aha moment: “it was what we know in the States as Nitro Cold Brew coffee."
It occurred to me that although Nitro Cold Brew coffee is quite famous in the states, for example, it has been a staple on Starbucks' menu since the summer of 2016, I have not encountered it in Japan that often. Hence, I started to look into where else in Japan I could have a good Nitro Brew coffee and found out more and more about the Nitro Brew coffee scene in Japan, including some fascinating facts about it. One of these facts is that Nitro Brew Coffee is known by many different names in Japan, which can be a bit of trouble if you are trying to ask the cafe if they serve this drink. Therefore, I hope this article will help to clear out the thick foam of mystery surrounding Nitro Coffee in Japan and will be a helpful guide for any Nitro Coffee lover to get their coffee cravings met while in Japan.
What is Nitro Brew Coffee?
Nitro Brew Coffee might sound very technical, but in reality, it is a simple coffee drink made with a genius idea. Nitro Brew Coffee is a variation of cold brew coffee that has nitrogen gas infused in it. So to understand what Nitro Brew Coffee is, we have to first know what cold brew coffee is. Cold-brew coffee is coffee made using cold or room-temperature water instead of hot water. Usually, when we think of coffee extraction, we think of hot water—pour over, french press, mocha stove top, espresso machine—all these methods use hot water to extract the delicious flavors of coffee. However, using water at high temperatures has its drawbacks: it can easily result in over-extraction, causing the coffee to taste ashy, bitter, and too acidic. When we use cold or room-temperature water in cold brew extraction, the resulting coffee is mellower, smoother, and richer in taste and flavor. To compensate for the lower temperature, the coffee has to be steeped in water for hours, sometimes even up to 24 hours. Also, the coffee-to-water ratio is higher for cold-brew coffee compared to other coffee brewing methods.
Now let’s get to the exciting part of the nitrogen infusion. Once the cold-brew coffee is ready, it is stored in kegs or bottles. The keg is connected to a tap, server, or dispenser exactly like a beer server. When you order a glass of Nitro Brew coffee, the cold brew coffee is poured into the glass through the dispenser, and during this process, nitrogen gas is pumped into the cold brew coffee. Infusing nitrogen gas makes the coffee creamy and velvety and adds a hint of sweetness to the coffee. It also creates a beautiful foam on top of the glass, making the drink look and taste even better!
What is the science behind Nitro Brew coffee that makes it so good?
- Nitrogen gas is a highly inert (non-reactive) gas.
Nitrogen does not react with water, making it an ideal gas to be infused into liquid beverages. For example, when carbon dioxide is infused into a drink, it creates carbonic acid, which can impart a bitter and sour taste. However, in the case of nitrogen, no unpleasant taste alteration happens, and we can enjoy the natural flavor of the coffee.
The inertness of nitrogen gas also has another advantage: displacing oxygen in coffee. We all know that once the coffee is roasted and extracted, the taste and flavor start to deteriorate with time, and the culprit behind this is oxidation caused by oxygen in the air. Nitrogen, when infused into coffee, takes up the space that would be otherwise taken by oxygen and slows down the oxidation process. This means that Nitro coffee (especially in canned form) preserves its original flavor and tastes better than other coffees.
- Nitrogen gas creates smaller bubbles, which creates a creamy texture, often described as a “Velvety mouthfeel.”
Nitrogen gas has very low solubility in water compared to other gases. Due to this low solubility, when it is infused into a liquid beverage, nitrogen creates tiny bubbles. Relative solubilities of nitrogen and carbon dioxide in water:
|Solubility in Water (in 1 liter of water)|
|Carbon Dioxide||1,750 milligrams|
A lower solubility > Smaller bubbles > Creamy and smooth texture
Even when it is black without the addition of any creamers or milk, Nitrogen coffee has an extremely pleasant, mellow, buttery mouthfeel; it is all thanks to these little Nitrogen bubbles!
How did it start: History and Origin of Nitro Brew Coffee
Like any other hot coffee topic, the origin of Nitro Brew coffee has been a matter of dispute among coffee connoisseurs. Below are two theories:
1. Stumptown Coffee Roaster ( Portland, Oregon) (June 2013)
Nate Armbrust, credited with creating Nitro Brew coffee, was a food scientist at Stumptown Coffee when they started serving Nitro Brew coffee on the tap at their cafes in June 2013. However, Armbrust had been working on the Nitro Coffee project for a long time before joining Stumptown. He used to home-brew Guinness in the past and was working on creating a gas-infused coffee. He tried infusing coffee with carbon dioxide, the most commonly used gas to make beverages (coke, Fanta, Pepsi, etc.), but soon realized that it made coffee unpleasantly bitter and acidic. In an interview, he said,
"Coffee just doesn't take acid the way juice or tea can. "When the CO2 becomes carbonic acid in solution, it just destroys the flavor."
But then he remembered his days of brewing Guinness, and the creamy foam on top of a pint of Guinness is made by an infusion of nitrogen. So when he started working at Stumptown, he experimented with various pressures (the right amount of nitrogen gas) and timings. Then he finally figured out the perfect concoction that looked like a stout but, in fact, was coffee, with a smooth, velvety mouthfeel. This was the birth of Nitro Brew Coffee.
2. Cuvee Coffee (Austin, Texas) (August 14th, 2011)
According to Mike McKim, the idea of gas-infused coffee came to him for the first time in 2005. However, back then, he could not work on it realistically. In 2011, he seriously worked on his idea of gas-infused coffee. He was struggling with coming up with something that was not just coffee with bubbles but something 'truly unique.' He had his eureka moment while enjoying a Nitro Stout beer with a friend. In his words:
"I was with a friend drinking a Left Hand Milk Stout Nitro out of the bottle, and that's when it all came full circle for me. I watched the cascading nitro and thought, 'Why can't I do that with coffee?"
Once he got his desired results with nitrogen kegs, he finally took it public for the first time at the Slow Food Austin Event in Texas in the summer of 2012.
Nitro Brew Coffee in Japan
In the United States, Nitro Brew coffee is quite popular and commonly available. Since 2016, Starbucks has made it a part of its regular menu. In addition, other coffee giants, such as Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, Tim Hortons, and Dunkin Donuts, offer Nitro Brew Coffee in their outlets.
In Japan, though, Nitro Brew Coffee is still a rare find. In Japan, even Starbucks only serves Nitro Brew Coffee at specific stores, such as the Starbucks Reserve Roastery Tokyo.
An interesting trend regarding Nitro Brew Coffee in Japan is that it has become fashionable to offer Nitro Coffee at gourmet bars, special events, luxury hotels, offices, etc. (in settings other than cafes). Having a Nitro Coffee machine in the lobby or waiting room shows that the establishment has 'Kodawari'—they have gone the extra length to bring something unique and special to their patrons. For example, a famous Japanese company called Key Coffee (est. 1952) has been offering the installation of a Nitro Coffee system branded as “Cold Crema Coffee System.” This machine is not available for personal home use but only for corporate buyers such as hotels, restaurants, offices, etc. For instance, Key Coffee’s Cold Crema System is available at a hotel called the Royal Park Iconic Tokyo Shiodome Hotel, Locopico Cafe (a cafe in Kawaguchi, Saitama prefecture), and even at a popular chain Internet cafe called Dice (Tokyo Nishiikebukuro branch).
Here is a video for the Cold Crema dispenser:
Some of the advantages of the system, as advertised by Key Coffee:
- Tankless: The system does not require a separate nitrogen tank as the machine takes in air, extracts nitrogen, and infuses the gas into the cold brew coffee. (How cool!)
- Compact and stylish design: The machine is relatively compact, with dimensions of W170×D550×H515mm. It just has to be connected to a 100-volt power supply.
- It creates a rich, thick foam on the coffee, giving it a beer-like appearance. The thickness of the foam can be adjusted using an air valve on the machine.
- Makes a coffee with a creamy, velvety mouthfeel: The infusion of nitrogen into the coffee creates a gorgeously smooth mouthfeel even without any creamer or milk.
Japan is known for its pre-made coffee drinks, so it is natural to wonder if Japan has canned Nitro coffee too. Pre-made canned Nitro cold-brew coffee is quite common in the states and can even be found in grocery stores. Unfortunately, in Japan, that is not the case. Maybe sometime in the near future, Japanese street-side vending machines might be stocked full of Nitro Cold Brew coffee, but for now, no Japanese coffee company offers ready-to-drink Nitro Brew coffee.
However, all hope is not lost. There are several places in Japan where you can have Nitro Coffee poured fresh from the tap, and later in this article, we will introduce some of the best places to enjoy Nitro Brew Coffee in Japan.
What is Nitro Brew Coffee called in Japan?
Nitro Brew Coffee is like the Ninja of all coffee drinks, as it is known by several different names in Japan, and it can be pretty tricky to find it on a menu or to search for a Japanese cafe where it is served.
- Draft Coffee (ドラフトコーヒー, Dorafuto Ko-hee): Since it looks like draft beer on tap, it is especially known by this name at fancy bars that serve coffee-based cocktails and coffee-brewery collaboration establishments.
- Nitoro Coffee (ニトロコーヒー)
- Nitro Cold Brew Coffee (ナイトロ コールドブリュー コーヒー): It is served in Starbucks Reserve shops as “Nitro Cold Brew’ in Japan.
- Cold Crema Coffee (コールドクレマコーヒー): Nitro cold brew coffee from a famous Japanese coffee company (est. 1920) called Key Coffee.
- Ice Brewed Coffee (アイスブリュードコーヒー): UCC (Ueshima Coffee) has been serving Nitro Brew coffee by this name since 2015.
Why could Nitro Coffee be the next coffee trend in Japan?
There are several reasons why Nitro Cold Brew Coffee has huge potential to become the next coffee trend in Japan:
1. Nitro Cold Brew's similarity to draft beer:
As I have mentioned earlier, Nitro Coffee is also known as "Draft Coffee" in Japan. From its appearance to the mouthfeel, Nitro Coffee is like a doppelganger of Draft beer. In Japan, people love beer on tap. One of the most common things you will hear people order when they first arrive at a bar, Izakaya (Japanese beer and food bar), or restaurant is "Nama Bi-ru" (Draft Beer). Picture this: a Japanese office-goer finishes his long, stressful day at work, goes through multiple crowded subway stations, and then sits down at a bar and takes a sip of his favorite beer from a perfectly chilled glass with a thick, creamy foam on top. It is basically like the drink telling him, "Well done for the day; you deserve to treat yourself and relax." This comforting bliss is something you cannot find in a strong shot of espresso or a cup of coffee that has to be drunk while it's hot from a plastic cup. However, since Nitro Coffee is similar to draft beer, it is like having the best of both worlds: "the energizing effect of caffeine" and the "relaxing mouthfeel, taste, and appearance of draft beer."
2. Nitro Cold Brew Coffee's base is Cold Brew Coffee, which has deep roots in Japanese coffee history.
In Japan, if you go to "Kissaten-style cafes,", you will most probably see "Mizu-Dashi Coffee" or "Dutch Coffee" on the menu. Many of us might also be familiar with Hario's Mizu-Dashi (Cold Brew Coffee Pots), which are so popular all over the world. Cold-brew coffee, where the coffee is extracted using cold or room-temperature water instead of hot water and then served chilled, has existed in Japan since the Meiji Era (1868–1922). The fact that cold brew coffee has existed for more than 100 years in Japan and is still a popular item on most Japanese specialty cafe menus is clear evidence that cold brew coffee is very popular among Japanese coffee lovers. Nitro Brew Coffee is an evolved form of cold brew coffee that is perfect for today's Japanese society, which is welcoming of new global trends but also has a deep affection for Japanese culture and history.
Where to find the best Nitro Coffee in Japan?
There are multiple places in Japan where you can enjoy Nitro Brew Coffee; it might be called Draft Coffee, Nitoro Ko-hee, or a different name where you might not recognize it on a menu, but if you do manage to get a chance to try Japanese Nitro Brew Coffee, know that it is going to have the signature creamy foam. It is going to be worth your effort to find it!
1. Mellow Brown Coffee by UCC
Mellow Brown Coffee is a specialty coffee brand made by UCC, the coffee giant of Japan, also known as Ueshima Coffee (est. 1933). There are multiple branches of Mellow Brown Coffee in Japan, and they have been serving Nitro Brew Coffee as “Ice Brewed Coffee” since 2015 (!). Currently, there are 6 Mellow Brown stores that offer this drink; the branch locations are below:
- Akasaka （Tokyo）
- San-A Urasoe West Coast Parco City （Okinawa）
- Shijo Karasuma (Kyoto)
- Kawaramachi (Kyoto)
- Teramachi (Kyoto)
- Osaka International Airport (Osaka)
They use their original Nitro Brew coffee dispenser and use specialty coffee beans called “Largo Beans” to make their Nitro Brew. Largo beans are carefully selected as the top 8% of coffee beans, with a flavor and taste profile reminiscent of milk chocolate. According to the Mellow Brown website, their ice-brewed nitrogen coffee is almost like a ‘Dessert Mousse.’ Pretty tempting, I must say!
2. VERVE COFFEE ROASTERS SHINJUKU STATION
If you love specialty coffee, you might have heard of this award-winning roastery from California. Their first Japanese branch was opened at Shinjuku Station in 2016. At Verve, Nitro Brew Coffee is known as “Nitoro Ko-hee” in Japanese. As a third-wave roastery, Verve Japan changes its coffee beans for Nitro Brew daily.
3. Forucafe Main Branch at Nishiwaseda,Shinjuku-ku,Tokyo
Forucafe means “For You Cafe”, and is a popular cafe with multiple branches in Japan. Their Nitro Brew Coffee is called “Draft Coffee”, and is made by infusing nitrogen into their specialty cold brew coffee that is extracted by steeping coffee in water for 7 hours.
4. STARBUCKS RESERVE® ROASTERY TOKYO
As one of the first coffee companies to offer Nitro Cold Brew Coffee as a part of their regular menu, we cannot leave Starbucks off this list. In Japan, Nitro Cold Brew Coffee cannot be found in all Starbucks branches. One of the Starbucks Japan stores that offers this drink on their menu as the classic “Nitro Cold Brew Coffee” is Starbucks Reserve Roastery Tokyo. If you like Starbucks and their Nitro Cold Brew Coffee, make sure to keep an eye on them as Starbucks Japan offers seasonal editions of their Nitro Cold brew, such as “Nitro Cold Brew Mousse Foam Dark Caramel” and “Nitro Cold Brew Vanilla Sweet Cream.”
Is Nitro Coffee healthier than other coffee drinks? Caffeine, Acidity, and Calories.
If you are new to Nitro Coffee and are wondering if it has any possible health benefits or side effects, then you have come to the right place. Here is a breakdown of the contents of Nitro Coffee and why or how it might be a healthier drink compared to other coffee drinks such as latte, cappuccino, or frappes.
Calories: The best thing about Nitro Coffee is that Nitrogen does all the work of creamer and sweetener, so even when Nitro coffee is black (sugar and milk free), it still has a faint sweetness and a velvety texture. So most people find it unnecessary to add anything to a Nitro Coffee, bypassing the calories they would otherwise add to their coffee disguised as creamers, sugar, syrup, etc., and are still rewarded with a coffee that is indulgently creamy and delicious.
Acidity: Nitro Coffee is made using cold-brew coffee, and cold-brew coffee is less acidic than coffee brewed with hot water. In regular coffee, the coffee is extracted using hot water, which pulls out the acidic oil compounds from the coffee; however, in cold brew coffee, no hot water is used, resulting in a much lower acidity level. The fact that it is less acidic makes it easier on the digestive system. In fact, a 2018 scientific study shows that cold brew coffee is up to 65% less acidic compared to hot brew coffee. So if regular coffee makes you feel bloated and you suffer from acid reflux or gastrointestinal problems, then Nitro Coffee might be a better option for you than regular coffee. Here is a graph from the scientific study that compares the acidity level of cold brew and hot brew coffee.
- Caffeine: Caffeine content can be a tricky topic to give a clear answer on, as caffeine content depends on many different factors, such as the size of the drink, the roasting profile of the beans, the type of the beans, etc. However, the simplest answer would be that cold brew coffee does have a higher caffeine content compared to regular coffee, and we will explain why. The temperature used to extract coffee in cold brew coffee is much, much lower compared to regular brewing methods, and therefore, a higher coffee-to-water ratio has to be used to compensate for the low temperature. Hence, cold brew coffee is actually a concentrated coffee drink, and this also contributes to cold brew’s rich taste and flavor. Let’s look at the water-to-coffee ratio for standard coffee drinks compared to nitro brew coffee:
|Coffee type||Coffee to water ratio (average)||Caffeine per serving|
|Espresso||1:2||63mg (per shot)|
|Pour over/manual drip||1:16||175 mg (per 8-ounce cup)|
|French Press||1:12||80-100mg (per 8-ounce cup)|
|Cold brew concentrate||2:1 to 1:1||80-140mg (per 8 ounce cup)|
We can see that the caffeine in Cold brew coffee is on the higher end of the spectrum compared to other coffee drinks. Although it might be tempting to indulge in glass after glass of delicious Nitro brew coffee, we would recommend enjoying it in moderation, especially if you are caffeine intolerant. If you would like to learn more about the impact of caffeine on our health, make sure to check this one out!
- Is Nitrogen gas safe to consume: When you hear the word 'Nitrogen', it might ring a bell in connection to Nitrous oxide, a gas also known as laughing gas. However, as long as the chemistry is concerned, the gas used in Nitro brew coffee is 'Nitrogen' in its inert (non-reactive) form, and hence it will not cause you to laugh uncontrollably. (Although a glass of Nitro coffee might make a coffee-lovers' soul laugh from how delicious the coffee is, it is a completely symbolic laugh, not a physical one) . Compared to other gasses used in the beverage industry, such as Carbon-dioxide, Nitrogen is far safer, as it is very non-reactive and less acidic. So if fizzy drinks make you feel bloated, then Nitrogen-based beverages are better for you. In fact, you might be surprised, but 78% of the air we breathe is made up of Nitrogen gas (which is higher than oxygen, which contributes to only 21% of air).
While Nitro Coffee has existed in Japan for a while, it is only now that its popularity is picking up its pace. It will be very exciting to see how Nitro Cold Brew Coffee evolves in Japan and becomes a part of the Japanese coffee culture.