PORTLAND, Maine — It’s served at smoothie shops, breweries, bowling alleys and high-tech offices.
Portland’s Coffee By Design installed nitro taps in six cafes this week. “People thought we were adding beer,” said CBD general manager Kevin Gaspardi, who turned L.L. Bean shoppers’ heads at his in-store Freeport cafe this week.
Originating in the coffee-obsessed Northwest, the invention that infuses cold brew coffee with nitrogen gas, and it is served on tap is giving coffee purveyors and specialty shops a new way to capture customers.
Resembling Guinness, the nitro-fueled coffee is now reaching beyond the cafe walls. Spotted in Portland and Bangor lunch counters, food co-ops and breweries on the coast, one wonders if gas stations will soon dispense nitro filler ups at the pump.
“Coffee has moved from a commodity to a specialty product. People tried cold brew and said wait a second, this is really good. Cold brew increased in popularity and people said what if we served it from kegs?” said Connor Roelke, of Nobl Coffee, a nitro wholesaler in New Hampshire now servicing 26 Maine accounts.
By summer’s end Roelke predicts that number will quadruple.
“The awareness has increased in the last year. The quality of nitro is there, it’s unique, super creamy and impossible to match with other methods,” he said.
Savored for its smooth texture, naturally chocolate flavors and low-acidity, the pricy drink — averaging $4 — gives independent businesses a competitive edge. Located near Starbucks on Route 1 in Scarborough, The Cheese Iron now has what the Seattle heavyweight does not have in Maine: nitro on tap.
“We want to provide people who want coffee with something more special,” said Cheese Iron co-owner Jill Dutton, who hired White Cap Coffee to deliver a kegerator of nitro made with Rwanda Bean brew this week. The Portland startups collaborated in September to bring small businesses in greater Portland coffee on draft.
The Cheese Iron’s tap, a new addition to their coffee station, started to flow Friday for the first time. Amid their imported cheese and curated wine and beer, the artisanal offering fits right in. “We love coffee. We just decided we needed an iced coffee in the store that was good,” Dutton said. And easy to administer, with the flick of a wrist.
Up the coast in Belfast, Marshall Wharf Brewing Co. is one of the first breweries in Maine to offer nitro coffee.
Already using cold press coffee in their Baltic porter called Wrecking Ball, it was an easy transition for the brewery, co-owner David Carlson said. “Being lovers of coffee with years of experience nitro-ing beers we figured it out as we went along,” Carlson said.
Soon after adding a tap of nitro brew made with Green Tree Coffee in their tasting room “it just exploded,” said Carlson, whose wife Sarah came up with the idea.
Now tug boat drivers, ship builders, and brewers stream into the tasting room all day for nips of nitro cold brew to go. “Two years ago, there was not a lot out there,” said Carlson, who also serves nitro at his restaurant Three Tides. And now?
“We’ve seen a 300 to 400 percent increase in coffee sales,” from summer 2015 to spring 2017, he said.
Dedicating a tap line to coffee in a brew pub speaks to nitro’s demand.
“It is different from a normal beer line and is a fairly significant investment,” Carlson said. “I am glad we got into it when we did. I want to bring as many people as possible to Belfast. If nitro coffee is a reason to visit and come here and check us out, I’m all for it.”
In Portland, Bard Coffee fronted the trend in 2014. During the Middle Street’s cafe renovation two years ago, they increased their espresso bar to accommodate nitrogen tanks and taps.
“We went with it. We liked how it tasted,” said Brittany Feltovic, Bard’s director of operations, who would not reveal what kind of coffee they use in their nitro — served by the glass and in growlers — or what tricks help produce the velvety drink. “It will become one of those things that everybody has.”
Indeed, Whole Foods Market in Portland has six taps of nitro — four for coffee and two for tea. Supervisor Dasha Smirnova said the market added them to keep pace with the city’s vibrant coffee scene. “Portland has so many beautiful coffee shops, there is such a saturation that it was a necessity,” she said.
Even far from the city, nitro nirvana is percolating fast.
Andrew Newell owner of Winterport’s Farm House Coffee Roasters taught himself how to use kegging equipment and created a secret recipe. He sells nitro by the cup at the Orono Farmer’s Market and Bangor’s Fork and Spoon, and he has seen sales increase rapidly.
“People absolutely love it. I was one of the first to have it in the state a year and a half ago,” said Newell, who debuts his nitro at the new indoor Belfast Farmer’s Market next weekend.
“When I set that thing up they flock to it,” he said. “It’s fun.”
Despite the raves, not everyone is aboard the nitro train. Some companies like Tandem Coffee Roasters in Portland have no plans to traffick in the trend. “We’ve got enough on our plate at the moment,” said owner William Pratt, who is developing an instant coffee.
Those who work in the nitro space like Roelke are going full steam ahead. His coffee brewery Nobl is moving into a new facility next month, has hired seven people, manufactures their own nitrogen, and he has expanded across New England.
“Some call it a gimmick. I could not disagree more,” he said. “You can’t call it a gimmick when it’s this tasty.”