Coffee: the lifeblood of our world. Unlike some (and no judgement here), I could go a day without coffee, but why on Earth would I want to? Grant Garland shares the inspiration behind C-U’s premier local nitro coffee business and what makes the beverage so special.


Smile Politely: Hello! Can you introduce yourself and tell us your role(s) with Nitro Cup?

Grant Garland: My name is Grant Garland. I am co-owner of NitroCup. I am the coffee guy: I roast, blend, and brew our product. I also run our social media outlets and handle our marketing, website, and merchandise. You will typically find me behind the Point-of-Sale register, and occasionally I’m lucky enough to be the person serving our coffee from the tap!

SP: Can you provide a little insight into what nitro cold brew is?

Garland: Nitrogen is what gives our coffee the cascading, foamy look and mouthfeel. It is a lot like making a carbonated soda, but instead of big bubbles that pop, nitrogen has tons of tiny bubbles that coat your tongue. This inhibits your bitter receptors which makes for a smooth taste and allows the natural sweetness of our blend to shine a bit more. Obviously this technique has been used in beer brewing for ages — think Guinness — but it is starting to be applied to all types of beverages like wine, coffee, and kombucha.

A foamy cold brew coffee in a plastic to go cup. Photo by Nitrocup Facebook.Photo by NitroCup Facebook.

SP: What inspired the way you serve your coffee?

Garland: Our inspiration was strictly cosmetic in the beginning. We thought that nitro coffee looked cool and we wanted to try it, but nobody in town had it yet. So in December 2016, we built a kegerator in my partner Will’s basement and started experimenting. I was working for a coffee chain at time and noticed that cold coffee beverages were becoming an industry standard. There are still a lot of people out there who scoff at the idea of cold coffee, but cold brew is undeniably practical. Especially in a fast-paced society, and here in the Midwest where it’s hot and muggy for months at a time.   

After several years on the service side of coffee, I had become a little bit jaded by my experiences with the café racket. Serving quality coffee drinks is a complex — and frankly misunderstood — process that requires skill and precision. But no matter how hard you work toward perfection in a café, you can’t please everyone because everyone likes their coffee their own way. You start to feel that people like milk and sugar more than they like coffee. They like ordering their coffee more than they like drinking it.

But cold brew sparked my attention because of the simplicity of it all. It originally started as another daunting task: filling brew buckets and dumping grounds to fit into an already stressful workload behind the scenes at the café, but I quickly realized the benefits of brewing in bulk and getting a consistent result. 

In the spring of 2017, when we successfully poured our first NitroCup in Will’s basement after a few months of experiments, it truly felt like an epiphany moment. The coffee was so drinkable, and it felt like a craft beverage. I went from feeling like nitro cold brew was a gimmick to believing it was the perfect way to serve coffee to any type of coffee drinker. It was black coffee for everyone. 

My partner was essentially our first test subject because he had never really enjoyed coffee before. When we were roommates a few years before, just after college in the good ole days, we had spent a lot of time observing each other’s coffee rituals, and they were vastly different. Will used to say to me all the time, “Help me like coffee!” I was more about finesse, and he was all about function; but NitroCup satisfied us both: the perfect combination of finesse and function, and it was as easy as pouring from a tap.

So at the end of the day, I’m inspired by the thought of turning people on to good coffee without making it too complicated for them. Life is good when good things come easy. When you start to be known as a “coffee person,” you hear “Help me like coffee!” a lot. And it’s not easy to explain what makes coffee good; the answer isn’t short. It is a little cheesy, but I honestly get the feels when somebody who doesn’t normally take their coffee without milk and sugar tries and enjoys a NitroCup for the first time. Oftentimes, those are the people who come back again and again and say, “This is the only coffee I can drink.” That makes me feel like we’re doing something real with our business.

SP:  I know my answer, but I’m curious about yours: is cold brew drinkable all year ‘round?

Garland: Absolutely. There are a few days in the thick of winter that I might stray from a cold brew mindset, but I am always ready for a NitroCup. There are some cold Saturdays at the Market IN the Square that make us feel a little ridiculous for selling cold coffee, but we have many customers who drink NitroCup year round. We have an annual discussion in December every year where we rethink the whole business, but for now we are sticking with cold coffee.   

a cart with taps is attached to a bike that acts as NitroCup's mobile serving station. It sits in front of a fence and bush. Photo by Nitrocup Facebook.Photo by NitroCup Facebook.

SP: You have a very unique way of serving your coffee--a bike. What led to deciding that mode of transportation versus another, say a bigger vehicle or even a brick and mortar?

Garland: The bike was also initially appealing because of its appearance. We knew that rolling around with beer taps would turn heads. But much like the coffee itself, we discovered the simplicity of the bike setup made the business manageable in ways that other more complex investments might hinder us. We are also incredibly lucky to have the best Farmer’s Market in the area as our main location, and the bike draws a diverse crowd. We always try to keep the vibe around us fun and relaxed, and we approach it like you would a brick and mortar environment, with good tunes and good ambiance. We have a playlist dedicated to NitroCup mornings. I think it’s over 12 hours of music at this point, but it might be my favorite thing to come out of the business.

SP: And since you’re mobile, do you cater? What kinds of events are your favorite to do?

Garland: We aren’t as available for events as I would like, but we try to get out when we can. Both of our full time jobs keep us busy in addition to our personal lives. We will consider almost any event and try to be flexible. My favorite events are music festivals and food truck rallies. We also had the bike set up at my wedding, so I should definitely say that was one of my favorite events.

SP: Do you have another local spot that you like to grab a cup of joe?

Garland: I am guilty of not getting out enough — and I am the lead roaster at Columbia Street Roastery, so I spend all my time around good coffee. I have lived in C-U for a long time and am very familiar with the café scene. Café Kopi is probably the place I go to most often. Page Roasting Co. is where I would spend my money on single-origin whole bean coffee when I need variety in my life. I like Bossa Nova and sometimes get into Caffe Paradiso. Aroma Café is another place I have always had a great experience. BrewLab always has new things to try. Really you can’t go wrong with coffee in this area. 

SP: There are several local cafes in the area, what would you say makes Nitro Cup also special?

Garland
: I think NitroCup is unique for many reasons, but above everything, I believe our taste is what sets us apart the most. It may not be the most humble answer, but I would put our blend up against any other coffee out there. I think it appeals to a pretty diverse range of coffee consumers.

Four pictures in a grid clockwise--a freshly poured nitro brew cup sits on a table in front of the business's branded bike, co-owner Will drinks a nitro brew, co-owner Grant drinks a cup of nitro brew, and the business's coffee bike. Photo by Nitrocup Facebook.Photo by NitroCup Facebook.

SP: I think maybe more than ever, staying home and all, I strive to stay caffeinated and motivated. How can I get some of that good ol’ cold brew of yours?

Garland: Obviously the COVID-19 pandemic has forced us out of our comfort zone. We had been kicking around some ideas about how to expand our business for a while, but it really took something forcing our hand to try something new. Having a product that needs nitrogen for serving presents obstacles for us because NitroCup needs to be enjoyed fresh from the tap for the full effect. Like I said, our blend itself is delicious even without the nitrogen infusion. So currently we are offering our cold brew concentrate — not nitrogenized — for home delivery. We have a few cold coffee recipes we recommend trying out using our concentrate as a base or enhancement. Cold coffee is actually very versatile.

A dark cold brew coffee is in a glass cup next to a glass container of dark, cold brew coffee. Photo by NitroCup Facebook.Photo by NitroCup Facebook.

SP: Can you talk a bit about where you source your coffee and any other ingredients?

Garland: We developed our blend with Mark Herriott at Columbia Street Roastery. Mark was very helpful in the beginning of our product development, providing us with some tools and a variety of coffees to choose from.  I eventually started working for Columbia Street Roastery when I left the service side of the coffee industry to become a roaster in 2017. I feel lucky to have the connections in my professional coffee career that have put me in this unique situation, where I roast coffee for many businesses and members of this community including my very own outlet for expressing my philosophy on coffee. 

I take a lot of pride in the amount of coffee I have brought to the masses: lots of $2 lattes from Espresso Royale and thousands of roasts at CSR. NitroCup is made up of five different single-origin coffees from all of the major coffee growing regions around the world, all which are sourced by Columbia Street Roastery. Our nitrogen supplier is also local.

SP: What is your outreach approach during these difficult times? Have you found staying in touch with the public/community more difficult?

Garland: Like I said, COVID-19 pretty much changed our entire operation. We have been missing the Urbana Market at the Square so badly this month. After spending every Saturday (rain or shine, baby!) for the last three years selling our coffee to the best customers ever, it’s been tough on my spirit to have that taken away. But we really felt it was best to distance ourselves until we could accommodate the need to be sanitary and responsible. After some planning, we revamped our website and offered contactless delivery. Now you can pay online and get our cold brew brought right to your front door.  Thankfully, social media has kept us engaged with our favorite people, and the support has been overwhelming.   

SP: With such a shakeup to local businesses caused by the pandemic, what accommodations have you made?

Garland: We have been delivering far and wide, mostly trying to keep deliveries local. I try to accommodate people who are genuinely interested in cold coffee. I have delivered to Bloomington-Normal, Fisher, Bement, Monticello, and Mahomet. I encourage people to reach out using our online form if they are curious about delivery as an option. Hopefully, we will eventually be offering pick-up at a specific location. 

SP: Can you share what plans you’re considering when things begin to get back to “normal” business?

Garland: Like I mentioned earlier, we were working towards some new and exciting things before we were forced to try delivery out. I am starting to miss making the more artisan-inclined beverages, so maybe keep an eye out for a new offering from us. Maybe a soda or tea-based drink. I would say the Cold Brewser is here to stay, so look for us to offer refills of our cold brew concentrate on Saturday market days.

SP: Should customers order online or over the phone? Cash or credit?

Garland: Currently we are running all orders through our website www.nitrocup.coffee.  There you can order before 11pm on Thursdays and receive your delivery Sunday mornings (between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m.) and check out our merch store, too. The goal is to remain completely contactless until we feel it is safe for us to resume our usual operations.

SP: Anything else would you like to share with the readers?

Garland: I would encourage people who have never understood coffee drinkers to find us and give NitroCup a try. Chances are if you approach us with an optimistic spirit, we will broaden your world a little bit. If you are a coffee connoisseur, don’t turn your nose at us!  Come try our version of the perfect cup of coffee.

NitroCup
Champaign
order by 11 p.m. Thursday
for delivery Friday morning

 

Top image by Nitrocup.