Nitro coffee: The latest caffeinated craze to beat the daily grind

WASHINGTON — Folks rotating in and out of 904 Palmer Alley in Northwest are buzzing — and it’s not just with excitement over the newest storefront to open at CityCenterDC. They’re getting a taste of the latest caffeinated craze to hit the District: nitro coffee.

Behind the counter at Dolcezza, owner Robb Duncan pours what looks like Guinness out of a shiny silver tap and advises customers to pace themselves as they take their first sip of the cold, frothy drink.

“I’m always very skeptical about anything when anybody has something new that comes along … but [nitro coffee] is fascinating,” says Duncan, who opened his seventh D.C.-area Dolcezza location last week.

Dolcezza owner Robb Duncan pours a nitro coffee at the store's newest location at CityCenter. (WTOP/Rachel Nania)
Dolcezza owner Robb Duncan pours a nitro coffee at the store’s newest location at CityCenter. (WTOP/Rachel Nania)

There’s no alcohol in the beverage — it’s just cold-brew coffee made from Stumptown beans, infused with 100 percent nitrogen — but it delivers a buzz, no less.

“I’ve never been higher on coffee in my whole life,” Duncan says about the first time he tasted multiple cups of nitro coffee, while doing research for Dolcezza.

He explains that the “buzz” is generated from the high-concentration of caffeine in the cold-brew and the creamy, easy-to-drink quality the nitrogen brings. Translation: It goes down much faster than a typical cup of Joe and has a higher concentration of caffeine, hence the buzz.

Dolcezza has only been experimenting with nitro coffee for a few months. The team worked collaboratively with Annapolis-based AC beverage to build a keg and tap system specifically for coffee.

The system, Duncan explains, consists of a nitroginator that infuses molecules of nitrogen and carbon dioxide gas into a refrigerated keg of cold-brew coffee, which is then pulled from a tap – much like beer.

Since March, Dolcezza has been testing different batches of coffee on the nitrogen system in its 4,000-square-foot Northeast factory. The testing is necessary because the ratio of nitrogen to carbon dioxide infused in the coffee can alter its taste.

For now, the store’s Peru blend is being mixed with 100 percent nitrogen; too much carbon dioxide would make the overall taste too bright and bubbly, Duncan says.

Currently, the Dolcezza at CityCenter serves a plain nitro coffee and a “nitro and cream,” which is nitro coffee with a shot of heavy cream and homemade vanilla syrup. (Warning: It’s as tasty as a milkshake and goes down twice as fast.)

Duncan says the basic combination of nitro coffee and cream is only the beginning. The cold-brew offerings on Dolcezza’s menu will rotate, as will the nitro options.

“As the seasons come and go, the coffees will change. And this will wake up ideas for new combinations,” Duncan says.

Stumptown’s Finca El Puente coffee bean, for example, has notes of lavender and other purple fruits.

“This, on cold brew, on nitro when lavender’s in season will be amazing,” Duncan says. “A lavender simple syrup, maybe some cream.”

Duncan also sees the possibility for chocolate syrups, basil syrups and a variety of fruit syrups as they come into season at the local markets. There’s also the option to add a scoop of Dolcezza’s freshly made gelato to a glass of cold, frothy coffee.

“It’s a paradigm shift as far as what coffee can become,” Duncan says.

He even hints at the possibility of serving nitro coffee with Kahlúa or Jameson at the Dolcezza Factory and Dolcezza’s soon-to-open location at Mosaic District Park, since both stores have liquor licenses.

“It hasn’t even really begun. We’re just putting our feet into the water and it’s a very deep pool. There’s so much that we see we can do,” Duncan says.

Eventually, Dolcezza plans to bring the nitro coffee to all of its locations; Fairfax, 14th and P and the Dupont shop will be among the first to see the addition.

Expanding the nitro offerings to those stores goes hand-in-hand with expanding Dolcezza’s production of cold-brew coffee. Duncan estimates that bringing nitro coffee to all Dolcezza locations means he and his team will need to make about 150 gallons of cold-brew coffee each week.

The company’s new factory makes this goal achievable, but even still, Duncan predicts production demand — for coffee, gelato and other ideas — will outgrow the current space.

However, 11 years after launching the company, and now, with a multiple-person team in place, he’s never felt more energized about the future of Dolcezza – and that’s not just the nitro talking.

“This is our family. The personal-business separation, it doesn’t exist for us,” Duncan says. “So whether we’re at home eating dinner with our family and kids, or whether we’re here, it’s really the same thing. We just don’t shower with everybody. That’s the separation.”

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