There is something captivating about a freshly poured nitro beer or coffee. The cascading effect is mesmerizing; the waterfall of tiny bubbles slowly yields to a dark brew with a fluffy, white head thick enough to float a bottle cap.

The unique flavor and visual appeal of nitro drinks come from the fact that they are infused with nitrogen which is 50% less soluble in water than carbon dioxide. So, when nitrogen gas is infused into a beverage it comes out of the solution quickly, forming smaller bubbles and a finer fizz that manifests as a smooth, slightly thick, and velvety texture with a foam head.

Guinness stout is the pioneer nitrogen-infused drink having been developed back in the 1950s by a team of brewers led by Michael Ash. He discovered that adding nitrogen created a creamy texture and smoother flavor in addition to the ‘surge and settle’ effect that draught Guinness is now famous for. Guinness scientists further refined the process in 1988 with the “rocket widget” invention which nitrogenates canned Guinness, thus retaining its smooth and creamy taste previously only possible on draught.

Today, nitrogen is added to almost any beverage in an attempt to replicate the same unique taste and visual appeal observed in Guinness. Trials first started with cold brew coffee and their immense success has led to experimentation with other drinks including tea and wine.

Great reception by consumers has led to remarkable growth in nitro drinks. According to estimates from Grand View Research, the global nitro-infused beverages market size was valued at US$72.9 million in 2021. The market search firm forecasts the category to record a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 20.6% from 2022 to 2030 as the fascination with these inherently sippable beverages continues to attract new and existing consumers.

Sophisticated customer experience drives growth

Nitro-infusion is primarily a customer experience attraction. Nothing could be more visually appealing than the silky texture and foam head. Nitrogen infusion simply turns a thin beverage you might normally gulp down without a second thought into a creamy drink that you savor, taking the time to truly enjoy it.

In coffee, the perception of creaminess makes it taste like milk was added to the cold brew which removes the need for additional coffee. This is an especially attractive characteristic for non-dairy consumers with a craving for a splash of cream in their coffee.

What’s more; nitrogen infusion creates beverages with a sweeter taste, even without the addition of sugar or sweeteners. Consumers desire to limit sugar intake. A survey by Mintel on internet users revealed that “low sugar” has become more important to them, and 55% of adults want to limit sugar in their diet. The possibility of removing sugar from coffee and other nitro drinks naturally appeals to this group of consumers further driving up its demand.

Unlike C02, nitrogen also doesn’t create any acidity, removing the aspect from a beer or coffee’s flavor profile. This also makes nitro coffee and beer easier to drink for those who might otherwise struggle with acid reflux or stomach issues.

New possibilities beyond coffee

Coffee is the most popular of all nitrogen-infused beverages, accounting for 55% of all revenues in 2021, according to Grand View Market Research. The proliferation of coffee shops and cafes offering nitrogen-infused beverages has fueled this growth over the decades and is expected to do so for the foreseeable future.

The foray of multinational brands such as Starbucks and Nestle has also been a critical factor in accelerating this growth. Starbucks, which has 33,000 stores globally, offers nitro cold brew in a number of its stores.

Consumers can also buy Starbucks Nitro Cold Brew in cans at retail stores like Target, Amazon, and Walmart. Meanwhile, Nestle has two flavors of coffee in nitrogen-infused cans – Nescafé Azera Nitro Americano and Nescafé Azera Nitro Latte – available in retail stores across the United Kingdom.

Nitrogen binds well with milk alternatives making dairy-free nitro-infused cold brew lattes a popular option among consumers. Some companies like Califia Farms and Rise Brewing have tapped this by launching canned oat milk nitro brew lattes for the on-the-go consumer.

Califia Farms also has Almond milk as another option for its non-dairy latte. “Being a popularity-driven market, the beverage industry will surely see more innovative pioneers like RISE, introducing more interesting drinks to the public,” says Grant Gyesky, co-founder & CEO of Rise. “As this space continues to develop, the innovation in the beverage will be equally diverse, more customized.”

While coffee remains the largest sub-category, analysts forecast Nitrogen infused tea to be the fastest-growing nitrogen-infused beverage market. The nitrogen-infused tea market which was valued at US$24.97 million in 2023, is expected to post a CAGR of 20.5% over the next decade to reach a market value of US$161.2 million in 2033, according to Fact. MR.

Nitro tea’s popularity among consumers seeking a refreshing, low-calorie, unique beverage option is expected to drive this growth in the next decade. A number of various tea types are emerging to cater to this demand. This includes nitro black tea, green tea, and herbal tea, and can be flavored with a range of ingredients, such as fruits, herbs, and spices.

Soft beverage makers are also experimenting with Nitrogen. In February last year, American food and beverage giant PepsiCo launched Nitro Pepsi which uses widget technology to smoother products with a different experience from standard cola. The drink comes in two varieties: Draft Cola and Vanilla Draft Cola, as either single can serves or four-packs. With PepsiCo’s successful launch, Fact.MR forecasts more players getting into the category which will drive the global nitro-infused cola market to US$151.2 million by 2033.

For a long time, craft brewers tended to eschew nitrogen infusion. All that’s started to change as more brewers come around to the idea that texture—along with aroma and taste—plays a big role in a drinker’s enjoyment. The trend is particularly catching on in the US with craft outfits like Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., Sixpoint Brewery, Sly Fox Beer, Yards Brewing Company and more adding nitro to their arsenals. A strong number of brewpubs throughout the country also offer nitro beers.

Dispensing technology improves

The keg system is the earliest technology for producing and dispensing nitro-infused beverages. Kegs are first filled with the drink to three-quarters full. Afterward, nitrogen gas is pumped into the keg, then shaken manually. As nitrogen is not soluble the product starts to separate within the keg after a while and must be re-shaken. This led to inconsistent beverages from day to day and location to location.

The drawbacks of the Keg system led to the development of nitrogen infusion kits which are placed between the keg and the tap. These small boxes with in-lines and out-lines feed the nitro gas into the kit’s box, then push the drink through the same box, nitrogenating it before it travels to the tap.

A good example is Enhanced Beverage Solutions’ Nitrogen Infuser which can make the infusion level up to 25% nitrogen. Other examples in the market include The NitroTap by Segafredo Zanetti and Rotarex Solutions’ patented inline carbonation technology that can double the quantity of infused nitrogen to create a longer cascade effect that lasts up to one minute and 30 seconds.

Italian coffee company illycaffè has improved the process further by developing a Cold Brew Aria system that captures ambient air – already 78% nitrogen-rich, by nature – and infuses it at high pressure into cold brew coffee as it’s dispensed. The company notes that the combination creates a beautiful, long cascading effect in the glass and a rich creamy head.

For large corporations like Starbucks which have nitro drinks on tap in various outlets, the concentrate system or bag-in-box is a popular choice. These dispensing systems have pumps that mix coffee concentrate that comes in a ready-to-use form with water at a specific ratio inside the unit before nitrogen infusion and dispensing. This way operators with multiple locations get to produce consistent nitro brew reliably.

Sustaining the fizz with trendy and eco-friendly packaging

Appropriate packaging has been key in driving the RTD segment of nitrogen-infused beverages. The packaging of the drinks is characterized by bright colors, eye-catching pictures, simplistic design, and thin cans. These make canned ready-to-drink beverages more accessible while also making them appear more premium than normal coffee or tea items.

Ardagh Metal Packaging is a leading provider of premium Nitro Cans. The company in collaboration with natural ingredient company Doehler developed a slim nitro can that ensures that the product is instantly rendered fresh and crisp upon opening to ensure consistency and quality. The cans are outfitted with a nitrogen widget on the bottom of the can interior that will create the infusion process that’s observed with on-tap nitro beverages.

While plastic bottles have received considerable criticism for their environmental impact, Sidel’s StarLite Nitro base has a non-petaloid base designed for still beverages bottled with nitrogen dosing. The company points out that the Nitro base ensures improved PET bottle quality and stability throughout the entire supply chain as well as enables producers to reduce bottle weight and blowing pressure.

Transcend trend status to become mainstay

On-tap nitrogen dispensing systems have played a significant role in popularizing nitro drinks. Restaurants, cafes, and bars have installed these systems, providing customers with the option to enjoy freshly poured nitrogen-infused beverages.

Nitro-infused beverages have seen a 904% increase in menu penetration over the past four years, according to the Restaurant Business website. That number is expected to grow as new dispensing technology emerges to overcome key barriers to serving nitro cold brew, allowing more operators to meet the significant demand.

The lack of consumer awareness however remains one of the biggest obstacles to the expansion of the nitro-infused drinks business particularly in some parts of the planet, such as the Middle East and Africa, and Asia-Pacific. APAC is however warming up to Nitro drinks and is expected to be the fastest-growing market for nitro-infused drinks between now and 2030.

Companies operating in the market have started increasing their presence in the region by capitalizing on this potential. For instance, Starbucks and McDonald’s Corporation, both located in the U.S., have begun providing nitro-infused beverages in APAC, which is predicted to increase the sales of these products in the region.

North America generated the highest revenue in the market in 2021, followed by Europe, and the regional market is also expected to witness rapid growth in the coming years. This is due to the presence of top industry players in the region and companies are investing in R&D operations and launching new products to obtain a competitive advantage over their competitors.

Having stayed in the shadows for decades with only Guinness being the only major brand to appreciate its bespoke value, Nitro drinks rediscovered their mojo in coffee and are now extending to every possible drink from tea to wine.

The accelerated investment in new products in this category and the entry of more multinationals from Starbucks, to Nestle and now PepsiCo can only prove one thing: that the time is ripe for nitro drinks to transcend trend status to become mainstays.

This feature appeared in the September 2023 issue of FOOD BUSINESS AFRICA. You can read this and the entire magazine HERE