When a hurricane or tornado is heading your way, there is this quiet uneasiness just prior to the impending wave of violent winds and rain. Having been through the end trails of Katrina in 2005 when living in Birmingham, Alabama, I knew about this all too well. And what, you may fairly ask, has this to do with Nitro Coffee?
Fair enough. Nitro coffees’ impact on the US market was similar…….without the damage. Initially, in 2012/13, excitement and over-exuberance of the impending seismic impact this new product was going to have in the specialty coffee marketplace was soon followed by a couple years of “quiet uneasiness.”
Was the wave going to happen or were we just kidding ourselves all along? You could almost here the ticking of the doomsday clock in the background as worried faces stared blankly at one another hoping to hear or see a sign or signal that nitro coffee was not a dream after all.
2016/17 thankfully changed all that. Our “nitro coffee hurricane” arrived primarily from its quickly evolving Californian market base and swept through the 50 States as fast as anything we had seen before in the US specialty coffee industry.
So, to the crux of this blog. Is there going to be a similar wave or hurricane hitting those cities now leading nitro coffee’s charge into the European market? As London is certainly one of these cities (if not the top) I decided to check it out.
I didn’t choose the big guys in London. Like anywhere else, there is too much bluster and too much of telling you how their product is the greatest from these players. In reality, they often know far less than what they claim.
Skip that. I know where this hurricane will take place…at the grass root retail independent coffee shops. When they are talking about it, introducing it or selling it, the nitro wave will be well on its way.
Truth be told, I needed a good 4 or 5 weeks to gain a more representative understanding of this phenomena. But over a couple of days fighting through some amazingly heavy London traffic, coupled with frustrating attempts at parking the van, here is what I found.
First stop we checked into Latte Art Bar to chat with owner Joao Almedia. Watch this great video by him on his shop and his philosophy that makes his coffee business truly impressive https://vimeo.com/245433097
Joao (pronounce it “John”, he’s okay with that), is all ready on the road to bringing nitro coffee to his store. Look for it in the next few weeks or so. Joao does his research thoroughly and likes the idea of his shop being the place where customers try something new for the first time and remember his place as the place where they first tried this new product. This is the mindset and match which will make nitro something significant within London’s independent specialty coffee shops in the very near future. By the way, his store is located at 239 Brompton Road, SW3 2EP. Go check it out. It’s well worth it. Best espresso I had during the trip was here. Not even close.
Next stop, Crol and Co located at 77 Dunton Rd, London SE1 5TW. For me, this place is the quintessential independent corner coffee shop serving the community around it. I loved it. The walls with their open brick face, the simple wooden chairs and tables, great outdoor space to enjoy your latte in the late afternoon summer breeze…..on the street corner…perfect. Just everything I imagine an independent coffee shop should be and look like.
They have the traditional ice coffee but the nitro hasn’t found it’s way into this great little shop…..yet!
I did pop into a few more place like Camden Coffee House but they are not running with nitro….which is sad. They had in the past tried some canned cold brew. But that is not the same as nitro. Not at all.
Their decor and locations are great. Hopefully they’ll be taking another look at fresh from the tap nitro coffee in the near future.
With time running out we met up with Abi Jackson at Kiss the Hippo located at 50 George Street, Richmond, London, TW9 1HJ. This is a new age style coffee shop. Very sleek. Very cool. It is truly well laid out AND..it has a 5 kg Loring coffee roaster behind a glass wall at the back of the store.
Loring, a California manufacturer and the Italian manufacturer of my coffee roaster (IMF) are the only two drum roaster manufacturers I know who use technology that enables direct heat to be used as the primary source of energy to roast the coffee beans. With these drum roasters, the gas burner is placed beside the rotating drum. The heat is blown directly onto the coffee beans making convection energy their primary source of energy to roast the beans.
All other drum roasters heat the beans from burners placed below the drum and heat the beans through the steel drum making their primary energy source conduction heating. Convection is far better for control, efficiency and consistency when roasting coffee.
Convection heating also brings more body into the roasted bean at every level of roast. When I tried Kiss the Hippo’s nitro, I sensed immediately the effectiveness of their drum roaster to bring more body to their nitro given their lighter roast level than what I use for Raven nitro. I really enjoyed their nitro and suggest anyone in the area to visit it and try it out. And anyhow, this is a very cool new age coffee shop. Come check it out. You will not be disappointed.
Back to Abi Jackson. Abi is a Connecticut native having left its shores in 2003. She has a wealth of knowledge on the specialty coffee industry – over 17 years worth – including managing a Starbucks outlet or two. She knows coffee and she loves it.
It was interesting to hear what she said was her English partners’ perception of nitro coffee. He enjoys and drinks it whereas he feels ice coffee makes him feel like someone just left their coffee to get cold so they added some ice and made it a thing. Not a bad perception. Nitro is specific and it is produced to be sold fresh, primed with nitro and chilled from the tap. (I will not mention cans!)
However, we both believe there are particular challenges to nitro in the UK and European market.
Firstly, espresso, along with its family of drinks – lattes. cappuccino’s, flat white’s, macchiato’s, americano’s etc is the specialty coffee drink of Europe. In America, drip or brewed coffee is the base specialty coffee drink – albeit espresso grows in popularity year on year. Nitro coffee is made from drip coffee. So, as an espresso drinker, you will immediately notice the difference in texture and composition of nitro coffee.
Secondly, on the whole, Europe is colder than most of the USA. There is a significant proportion of habitual ice coffee drinkers (those who drink ice coffee even when there are a couple metres of snow on the floor outside) especially amongst the younger ice coffee drinkers. Research shows that 38% of younger cold coffee drinkers in the UK are habitual.
Thirdly, instant coffee is at a premium price in Europe. WTF!! In Waterford I found a store that was selling instant coffee (Nescafe) at 3 times the price (equivalent to Euro 53/kg) of whole roasted beans from Lavazza (equivalent selling price of Euro 18/kg). This is worse than box wine being sold for 3 times the price of a fine bottle of Granache from the Perpignon region. Can someone please explain this to me? How does coffee which has been mechanically and chemically destroyed sell for 3 times the price of roasted beans that have not even been ground yet? I feel like there are dark forces at play here!!
However, we both believe that nitro coffee – with the awesome way it forms it head just like a Guinness is very cool. And cool will certainly have an impact with the younger cold coffee drinkers in Europe. Cool and good branding will win the day.
If you own an independent coffee shop or manage one, please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. This is the first chapter of a very interesting story that will unfold in the next 12 to 18 months. Be a part of it. Share your thoughts with me and we’ll add your comments in the next review of this blog in about a month or so.
The Bean Whisperer