When nitro coffee first landed in Philly two years ago, it was a niche product. The drink — which sees cold brew infused with tiny nitrogen bubbles as it’s poured through a Guinness-like tap handle, creating a black coffee beverage that’s creamy and sweet — was considered very cutting edge. A Washington Post article from April 2015 even referred to it as “fringe.”
Since then, cold brew’s popularity has exploded, and awareness of the nitro version has slowly grown alongside. Starbucks provided a boost when it introduced nitro taps at a few area stores in mid-2016, but most Philly-area coffee drinkers still consider it novel.
Not for long. By this time next year, nitro coffee will have gone totally mainstream.
Nitro’s start in Philly
Jonathan Adams of Rival Bros Coffee Co. likens the pending nitro cold brew explosion to what happened with Nirvana. “They hated being popular. But there’s a price that comes with being discovered.”
Adams began playing around with nitro cold brew back in 2013, when he and partner Damien Pileggi were still operating their coffee biz out of a truck. At the time, the nitro tap systems were still mostly rigged together. Cafe owners had begun using nitrogen to drive coffee through lines and have it available to pour on demand, but were only just figuring out how to infuse the gas into the actual liquid. “It would have cost us around $10,000 to get a working system,” Adams recalled.
By 2015, when the partners opened their first brick and mortar cafe in Fitler Square, the price had stabilized to a more reasonable figure. Rival Bros became one of Philly’s early adopters of the tech, joining HubBub, Square One and GreenStreet.
Then La Colombe swooped in. Co-founder Todd Carmichael, never one to settle for being second, developed a tweak to the nitro method. Instead of infusing cold brew with straight nitrogen, he used nitrous oxide (NO2), which La Colombe says creates longer-lasting bubbles. He introduced his new invention — “Nitro Pure Black” and the cream-inclusive “Draft Latte” — at the company’s multiple cafes first, and then developed a canned version.
As of this year, the La Colombe Draft Latte line is available across the country at 5,000 food stores and markets, including Target and Costco. And that’s just the start of the spread.
Nitro at … Wawa?
Nitro is already one of Starbucks’ best-selling drinks, a position it achieved rapidly, shooting to top-seller status within months of its introduction last year (a spokesperson declined to elaborate on details or provide sales stats). Now offered at nearly 1,000 locations — including one in Philly proper and seven in the region — Starbucks Nitro Cold Brew is expected to be pouring at 1,500 green mermaid cafes by the end of this year.
But for real proof of nitro’s mainstreaming, look no further than this: Dunkin’ Donuts, that lowest common denominator caffeine purveyor known for helping middle America run, is currently testing a new item. The company calls it — you guessed it — Nitro Coffee.
As of right now, Nitro Coffee is only available in two Dunkin’ markets, one of which happens to be Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in Pennsylvania, which is apparently a common proving ground for the brand due to its varied demographics (the other one this time is Hartford, Conn). Results from the test, which started in June, are still being assessed, according to a company rep.
However, a worker at the 532 Scott St., Wilkes-Barre store confirmed that iced coffee sales have gone up “a pretty good amount” since the nitro introduction, even though, per the corporate rep, it’s “priced at a premium” compared to regular cold brew. So chances of a chain-wide rollout look good.
And Dunkin’s not the only big coffee provider running a test on the bubbly stuff. Highly relevant to the Philly coffee scene is this unannounced tidbit Billy Penn uncovered during an email exchange:
Wawa is also introducing nitro cold brew.
Or at least is also currently running tests. The company just launched regular, flat cold brew chain-wide this past July. Though Wawa PR manager Lori Bruce wouldn’t reveal exactly where the company is experimenting with the nitro version, she did confirm that “we just went live in our sixth test store with ‘Nitro Infused Cold Brew’ on tap!”
So, yeah. If you thought knowing about nitro cold brew was an each way to punch your coffee snob carrying card, those days are coming to an end. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, Rival Bros’ Adams said, although his initial response to hearing about the Dunkin’ and Wawa nitro adoption was shock.
“Wow, that’s crazy!” Adams said, adding that it was probably inevitable. “When someone comes up with something good, that’s a natural process.” He worries a bit about the potential “dumbing down” of the product, and having people complain when they get a Rival Bros 10-oz. glass if they’re used to behemoth sizes from Dunkin’ et al. But in general, he’s fine with it. “Our goals is to spread coffee love! The more people know about coffee, the better.”
So where can you get nitro coffee in Philly? For now, check the list below. But pretty soon, the answer will be, “Just about anywhere.”
Where to get nitro cold brew in Philadelphia
- Rival Bros Coffee Co. (2400 Lombard St.; 1528 Spruce St.)
- GreenStreet Coffee Co. (1101 Spruce St.)
- Square One Coffee (1811 JFK Blvd.; 249 S. 13th St.)
- HubBub Coffee (3736 Spruce St.)
- La Colombe Torrefaction (1335 Frankford Ave.; 141 S. Penn Sq.; 130 S. 19th St.; 100 S. Independence Mall W.)
- Gryphon Cafe (100 W. Oxford St.)
- Plenty Cafe (1602 Spruce St.; 1710 E. Passyunk Ave.; 705 S. 5th St.)
- Poppy’s Cafe (8229 Germantown Ave.)
- Allegro Coffee Bar at Whole Foods (2101 Pennsylvania Ave.)