Nitro beverages have seen exponential growth over the past several years and with that, we’ve heard a lot of questions about obtaining “the perfect nitro pour“, but what makes a nitro pour “perfect“?
I think we can all agree that regardless of the beverage, there are a few characteristics that define a nitro beverage — cascading effect, micro bubbles, frothy head, creamy mouthfeel — but is there more to nitro coffee and nitro beverages in general? Is there a set list of measurable criteria that can be applied to a nitro pour to gauge whether or not it is “perfect“?
Let’s start by looking at (and defining for our friends who may be new to nitro) the terms and characteristics that we mentioned above.
Cascading Effect / Visual Appeal
This is the mesmerizing effect and the first thing that you’ll notice. The cascade effect that you see where it actually looks like the bubbles are falling, or waterfalling, down the inside of the glass. It can be called the storm in your glass, the waterfall or any other number of clever names. Regardless of what we call it, the cascading effect is one element that we expect from every nitro pour.
Micro bubbles are a sign of proper nitrogen infusion. If there are no micro bubbles present, then the beverage is likely not properly infused. One way to test for this is to slowly roll your glass back and forth in your hand. Watch the top of the beverage as it runs up and down the side of the glass and you should see small bubbles that form and run along the glass as the beverage moves up and down.
Note that micro bubbles will develop over time even in a coffee that is served flat, but kept under nitrogen pressure for a long period of time (usually 5+ days). The coffee won’t necessarily be infused to the point that it will pour like a nitro coffee, but you will likely be able to distinguish the presence of micro bubbles both in the appearance of the beverage as well as in the taste and mouthfeel.
Having a frothy head is a must, but this is also a debatable component to the perfect nitro pour. As a general rule of thumb, we typically say that a half inch head on the beverage is considered a good, frothy head. Many of our customers want to see a larger head on the beverage, but that just isn’t a possibility in most cases.
The micro bubbles mentioned above act much differently than carbon dioxide in beer acts. Due to this fact, people looking for a head like they might find on a beer just isn’t in the realm of possibility. The head on a nitro pour is going to be much more thick, rich, dense and creamy than the head on a beer.
The frothy head gives the beverage a great contrast within itself. Once the cascade settles out, you’re left with a dark glass of coffee and a light, fluffy head on the drink.
Assuming that you’re using 100% nitrogen and properly infusing the beverage, obtaining a creamy mouthfeel is going to be a natural side effect. If you’re noticing micro bubbles in the beverage and a frothy head when it is poured, having a creamy mouthfeel is simply the next step. The creamy mouthfeel is where the visual component of the beverage meets the taste component. This is where minds get blown.
What Makes a “Perfect” Nitro Pour?
While there maybe be other things and external factors that can contribute to a perfect glass of nitro coffee, we’ve laid out 7 criteria below that we think go into the perfect nitro pour.
The Right Glassware – #1
Improper glassware can deter from the presentation of a good nitro pour. We’ve discussed this before how selecting the right glass can make all the difference in the appearance of the cascade effect – both in the duration as well as the vigor that the cascade has. Check out our post The Perfect Glass for Nitro Coffee as well as Drips & Draughts Podcast episode #27 – The Best Glasses for Nitro Coffee.
Many similarities can be drawn between how cold brew and nitro coffee is served on draft and comparisons with beer. When considering the proper glassware and how to pour a nitro coffee, it makes sense to look at how Guinness is poured. We don’t suggest that nitro coffee be poured as a traditional Guinness is poured, but we can glean some insights from our friends in the beer world. Take a look at this article – Physics and Aesthetics of a Guinness Draught.
Pure Nitrogen – #2
There are many options when it comes to gas, but if you want the best taste and mouthfeel from your nitro cold brew, stick with pure nitrogen. If you’ve followed us for any amount of time, you’ve likely hear about our original trials with nitro coffee and selecting the right (or wrong) gas. As homebrewers, CO2 and beer gas were always on hand for us, so when we started putting coffee on draft back in 2011 and 2012, that was what we started with. One of our original posts about gas from back in 2013 before nitro coffee was well known, we did a comparison Serving Coffee on Tap, CO2 v Nitrogen.
There are many gases that can be used to pressurize and serve coffee, but at the end of the day, nitrogen continues to be the best option. CO2 gives the coffee a harsh bitterness and that is the last thing that you want to have in your cold brew since the process of cold brewing seeks to yield a smooth, rich product and eliminate much of the bitterness that you experience with hot brewed coffee.
Some new machines even claim to make nitro coffee through built in “nitrogen generators”, but actually just use compressed ambient air which is going to be a combination of many atmospheric gases.
If you have the option, we suggest that you stick with 100% pure nitrogen for the best taste and mouthfeel whether that be from a tank or a dedicated nitrogen generator. Try to stay away from other gases, mixed gases and most importantly, compressed air.
Proper Nitrogen Infusion – #3
A proper nitro pour will require proper nitrogen infusion – either through pre-infusion or inline/on-demand infusion. Whichever method is used, the quality of the pour is going to be dependent on the amount of nitrogen that has been infused into the beverage.
Pre-infusion is generally done in the keg in one of two ways.
- Over an extended period of time under high pressure. Extended period of time being 2-3+ days and high pressure being 40+ psi.
- In the keg through the use of a diffusion stone. This method can substantially decrease the amount of time for infusion through the use of a Quick Cascade Keg Lid.
Both pre-infusion options can be sped up through agitation. If you can talk to someone who has been making nitro coffee for a few years, they’ll likely be able to tell you stories of shaking kegs in order to get their nitro pours right.
On-demand infusion is the other option outside of pre-infusion. On-demand, meaning that the beverage is flat in the keg, but is infused with nitrogen as it moves from the keg to the tap. This can be done using a NitroNow Nitro Infuser or a Nitro Tower.
One of the biggest benefits of on-demand infusion is the consistency that it yields. The first pour from a keg to the last will be identical, and that same pour will remain when a new keg is swapped in (assuming no other variables have changed – system pressure, temperature, etc).
As with anything, each user will need to determine which method will be best for his/her use case.
A Lasting Cascade Effect – #4
A good nitro pour will have a cascade that lasts beyond 2 minutes — if your nitro is pouring with a cascade that falls short of the 2 minute mark, there is significant room for improvement. The cascade effect is directly related to the amount of nitrogen infusion previously mentioned as well as using a well maintained, clean stainless steel stout faucet. The cascade effect can be more or less vigorous and long-lasting based on the amount of nitrogen infusion.
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A properly cleaned and maintained draft system will be crucial to good, consistent nitro pours. Should any coffee grounds, solids or other residue build up or get caught in the draft system, this can directly affect the quality of the pour and especially the cascade.
An Appropriate Head – #5
This size of the head on a nitro coffee has always been an area of debate, but we generally say that a half inch head on a nitro pour is what you should aim for and expect.
We have had a large number of people contact us after setting up and pouring their first nitro who expected to have a 1-2 inch head on top of the beverage for some reason, but that’s just not a realistic or desirable outcome with a nitro beverage.
If you’re using a Nitro Infuser, you will have the ability to dial in the infusion amount and this can help you increase the size of the head on the beverage, but in our experience, there really isn’t much need to go beyond a half inch. The micro bubbles that create the head on the beverage make it very dense and allow it to hold up throughout the consumption of the drink (in most cases).
Proper TDS – #6
Why does TDS matter if you’re putting the beverage on nitro? Without enough viscosity or thickness, the nitrogen infusion just won’t take to the beverage leaving you with a lackluster cascade effect, a very small head or no head retention at all.
For example, infusing water (which should have a TDS close to zero) would have a very short cascade (if any) and would have no head retention. We might actually have to try this and report back… stay tuned.
This is going to be totally subjective, but we suggest a minimum TDS of 1.25 if you’re going to be serving nitro coffee. In speaking with a number of our clients, 1.25 seems to be “low” on the nitro coffee side of things as it seems many cold brewers ramp up the strength of their coffee knowing that nitro softens and smooths the perceived taste and flavor. We’ve talked to companies shooting for TDS readings in the 1.5 – 2.0 range for their ready-to-drink nitro coffee products.
Regardless of the number that you land on, having a minimum amount dissolved solids in your beverage is going to help to enrich the nitro pour. Using a TDS Meter and measuring TDS will not only give you a baseline, but it will also help you create a more consistent product which will help set you up for success with our next “must have” requirement for perfect nitro pours…
Consistency Between Pours and Between Kegs – #7
For any business selling and serving nitro coffee, consistency between glasses and kegs is a must. If you blow a keg in the middle of a daily rush and put a new keg on tap that is not pouring with all the same criteria that we discussed above, you’re likely to have some disappointed customers.
Being able to provide that consistency requires diligence on the part of all owners and employees. If pre-infusion is the chosen infusion method, then this requires a rigorous set of processes, checks and standards to guarantee that each keg is as good as the previous when it is put on tap. If on-demand infusion is the chosen method, there is a bit more leeway in terms of how the kegs are handled because the infusion is done by a piece of hardware rather than a set or processes and procedures that could have changing variables. It is for this reason, we are now starting to see many large companies switching over from pre-infusion to on-demand infusion because it takes some of the guesswork out of nitro coffee and it allows for a more consistent pour and a more consistent customer experience.
Recap: The 7 Criteria of a Perfect Nitro Pour
As we ran through our list, you may have felt that of the 7 criteria that were listed, there was a lot of spillover between each, and there was. With many of these, you can’t have one without the other, so there definitely were some interdependencies.
The 7 criteria that landed on the list made it and stayed there because if you take any one of those away, you’ll be left with a less than stellar nitro, so our feeling is that all 7 of the items listed are the “must haves” for a perfect nitro pour.
Here’s the final recap of the 7 criteria along with the characteristic(s) that they provide to the beverage.
- The Right Glassware – Cascade Effect, Good Presentation, Visual Appeal
- Pure Nitrogen – Creamy Mouthfeel, Micro Bubbles, Cascade Effect, Frothy Head
- Proper Nitrogen Infusion – Cascade Effect, Creamy Mouthfeel, Micro Bubbles, Frothy Head, Proper Cascade
- Long Lasting Cascade – Visual Appeal, Proper Nitrogen Infusion
- An Appropriate Head – Creamy Mouthfeel, Visual Appeal
- Proper TDS – Flavor, Consistency, Ability for Proper Nitrogen Infusion
- Consistency Between Pours – Happy, Loyal Customers!
As always, we love hearing from you, so if you feel like we left out a key point or missed something completely, let us know. We’d love to hear from you and we’d love to hear what you’re doing to make your perfect nitro pour.