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Coffee on tap: What in the world is nitro brew?

Nitro brew is cold brewed coffee that's served out of a keg and infused with nitrogen. Alexandra Floersch / Forum News Service1 / 3
When pouring nitro brew coffee, a restrictor faucet aerates the coffee to create a head. Photo courtesy M.Schleif Photography / Special to Forum News Service2 / 3
Twenty Below Coffee has been serving nitro brew coffee for nearly three years. Alexandra Floersch / Forum News Service3 / 3

MOORHEAD — At first, you might think coffee is an odd thing to have on tap at a microbrewery. But after learning more about "nitro brew coffee," it starts to make sense.

In February 2016, Junkyard Brewing Co. in Moorhead announced coffee on tap, giving employees a much-needed boost throughout the day.

"We thought about getting a coffee machine because we didn't have a way to brew coffee here in the mornings," says owner Aaron Juhnke. "But then we thought it would be a lot more convenient to do nitro brew."

Putting java on tap also gave the option for coffee-beer combinations, pairing it with Peanut Butter Bandit Stout, Coco Mondo Coconut Cream Ale, Far Out Mexican Hot Cocoa Stout and various wheat beers to make a black and tan.

"I think we sell just enough of it to pay for the beans," Juhnke says. "Most of it gets consumed by our bartenders and us during the day."

Friday, Sept. 29, is National Coffee Day and Twenty Below Coffee Co. has been serving nitro brew coffee since they opened nearly three years ago. Owner Ty Ford first encountered it at Stumptown Coffee Roasters on the West Coast, and he knew when he eventually opened his own shop he'd want tap lines in place to serve nitro brew.

"I think coffee borrows a lot from the craft brewery scene," Ford says. "When (breweries) started putting a lot of beers on nitrogen, that was of interest in the coffee world — something new, something exciting, something different."

What is it?

Juhnke says the nitro brew process is similar to making beer, but much simpler.

Using Stumbeano's espresso roast, Junkyard brewers "grind (beans), put it in big, strainer bags in a big kettle and mix it with cold, filtered water to let it sit in the cooler," says Nate Haugen, who is in charge of brewing. "Initially, I would do that for just about 24 hours, which is pretty typical."

But one weekend, Haugen made a mistake, letting the batch sit for 48 hours. Thankfully, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise as he learned he could trade more time for fewer beans.

Twenty Below follows a similar process.

"Basically, we use a high ratio of coffee to water," Ford says, explaining nitro brew requires ¾

pounds of beans per gallon. "We use a really coarse grind and extract (the flavor) at room temperature for about 12 hours. Then we filter the grounds out, put it in the keg and condition it on nitrogen."

Before putting it on nitrogen, the liquid is just cold brew coffee "but to actually get the nitrogen into the coffee is a different step," Haugen says. "It's basically the same thing we do to force carbonate beer where you hook up that gas line and you shake the keg."

Once the coffee is nitrogenated, consumers may notice a "creamy mouthfeel," Ford says.

While Junkyard pours the brew in a tulip glass to concentrate the coffee aroma, Twenty Below serves it in a mason jar, adding ice.

Why is it tricky to make?

Because nitro brew coffee requires extra steps and equipment to serve it, this style of coffee is rare to find in the F-M area.

"It's not necessarily in the coffee shops' repertoire of things they're used to doing," Ford says. "When we got started, we had a two-tap system — one for nitro, one for bubbly water. Just recently we're trying to get our six-tap system setup."

Twenty Below has traditionally offered the house blend on nitro, but single-origin coffees, cider and tea could be served on nitro as well.

For Junkyard, nitro brew coffee wasn't out of the realm of norm.

"It's easier to make it and serve it — not because of our (brewing) knowledge — but because we have the tap lines in place," Haugen says. "We have nitro equipment — faucets, drip trays, everything that allows us to do that because we're already in the beer business."

How's it different?

The main difference between nitro brew and iced or cold brew coffee, appearance-wise, is the foamy head the nitrogen creates when it's poured.

"Going through the restrictor faucet (in the tap) aerates the beer and agitates the nitrogen to want to come back out of the beer," Juhnke says.

The nitro tap restrictor plate — a diffuser the diameter of a pencil with five holes — plays an important role when pouring the brew.

"If you served a nitro coffee through a standard tap, you wouldn't get that beautiful cascade and the thick foam on top," Haugen says.

On a good day, Ford says the nitro brew has almost a caramel color to it. The nitrogen also "makes it almost creamy without cream," Haugen says.

The cold brew process tends to kill some of the acidity in the coffee, resulting in a strong, but not sour product that some tend to find easier on the stomach.

"What we're shooting for with our nitro brews is something that has a really full, heavy body with well-balanced flavor — nothing too acidic, nothing too bitter, just right in the sweet spot that most people tend to like," Ford says.

Another difference customers notice is the caffeine content.

"A lot of people about here say it gives you a different caffeine experience," Juhnke says. "When I drink hot coffee, it tends to give me a sweaty, jittery kind of caffeine buzz but the cold brew gives me strong energy throughout the day."

For people switching from hot coffee to nitro brew, some say the higher caffeine content knocks them off their feet. While for hot coffee the coffee to water ratio is 1 to 17, for nitro brew it's 1 to 14.

What do customers think?

Today, Junkyard goes through a keg of nitro brew in half the time they did five of six months ago.

"I've served a lot of people who have never had nitro coffee before," Haugen says. "You serve them a glass of it, and they're like, 'Wow, this is really good.'"

At the brewery, some customers enjoy a glass of nitro brew after work, as a start to a long night or to get an extra boost of energy.

At Twenty Below, Ford says customer feedback is often a mixed bag.

"It seems like 90 percent of people really attach to it and love it," he says. "Ten percent of people maybe have never tried a cold brew or have and don't specifically like this brew. For the most part, people tend to like it. Especially in the summer months, it's a nice change up from hot coffee."

Alexandra Floersch

Alexandra Floersch has worked for Forum Communications since February 2015. She is a content producer and photographer who enjoys writing about finance, fashion and home.

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