What's the Deal With Carbonated Coffee?

By Megan Giller  |  July 15, 2014

Cold brew’s bubbly cousin just burst onto the scene in the form of Coffer, an Austin-based carbonated coffee drink whose “micro-bubbles” are creating waves and point to a larger trend. So do carbonation and coffee go together? And can we even call this new thing coffee, or is it more like soda, kombucha or beer?

High-end coffee shops have long served espresso sided with a shot of sparkling water, but now they’re mixing the two together. For example, in San Francisco, Saint Frank serves an espresso bolstered with tonic water called the Kaffe Tonic, and Andytown makes a drink called the Snowy Plover, which co-owner Michael McCrory modeled on Italian import Bibi Caffé’s coffee soda. The Snowy Plover merges a shot of espresso with brown sugar syrup poured over iced sparkling water, creating an “explosion” of falling bubbles that McCrory calls “the sober man’s Guinness.’” Mockingbird Hill in Washington, D.C., serves a Kenya Cola (think Kenya coffee, bitters, sugar and soda water), and Intelligentsia in Manhattan has perfected the Intelli Egg Cream, a classic fizzy, chocolate soda with an added punch of espresso.

Meanwhile heavy-hitters like Portland’s Stumptown and Austin’s Cuvee Coffee have been bottling and kegging nitrogenated cold brew for about two years. By harnessing high-pressure nitrogen, they’re able to create a much smoother, aerated coffee with a terrific creaminess. Cuvee sends out between 80 and 120 kegs per week to the Central Texas region, and its Black & Blue product has gained such quick popularity that it has had to stop accepting new customers until it can ramp up production further.

The companies compare their nitrogenated coffee to beer, both in flavor and production. Stumptown recently hired a food scientist with a background in beer as well as people from the brewing industry to grow distribution and work with models like growlers and kegs. Director of cold brew Diane Aylsworth says the company has two production facilities: a roastery and a brewery, which looks almost indistinguishable from a beer brewery.

But when it comes to carbonated coffee, chemistry isn’t the only strong reaction. The idea of marrying bubbles with brew puts off many coffee enthusiasts, though it’s not for lack of trying. “When coffee and CO2 interact,” Aylsworth said, “it changes the flavor profile, and we haven’t been comfortable or happy with it.” Cuvee owner Mike McKim said that after experimenting, he came to the same conclusion and decided not to offer a carbonated product. Even Coffer co-founder Kevin Chen said that injecting CO2 into coffee can make it bitter, which is why he developed a natural carbonation process to smooth things out (that’s also why Cuvee and Stumptown’s products use nitrogen instead of CO2). So if coffee and carbonation aren’t natural friends, why are people pairing them?

Turns out there’s a secret ingredient that makes this new generation of carbonated coffee drinks work. “It’s the sweetness,” said Sean Henry, the owner of Houndstooth Coffee, which is the first shop in Austin to carry Coffer.

“The sugar buffer changes things,” Andytown co-owner Lauren Crabbe told me. “The brown sugar syrup mimics the caramelization agent in sodas, creating a layer of texture and flavor that’s more palatable.” That makes sense, given that the first products on the market called themselves “coffee soda” and added a good amount of sugar for good measure. These new caffeinated drinks just bring that idea to the serious coffee drinker.

Further evidence? Coffer plus ice cream makes one mean float.