Around age three, I drank what I would today call a cold filter-coffee latte macchiato. I drank it from a plastic Donald Duck cup with lots of sugar, the undissolved grains of which would get sucked up through the built-in straw long before the first “That’s all folks!” of watching back-to-back Looney Tunes. My parents blame the Chilean nanny. I thank her.
Over three decades later, I found myself drawing on these cold coffee-milk memories while on assignment to sample the new Draft Latte by our friends & partners at La Colombe Coffee Roasters. On a 90° Fahrenheit mid-August afternoon at the Philadelphia roaster’s Fishtown cafe, where it debuted in June, ambidextrous baristas were tapping glass after glass of the new drink. It is a cold concentrate of Nizza espresso mixed in a keg with fresh whole milk and served over a quarter glass of ice.
A second handle in the wooden bunny-eared configuration at a bend in the bar was getting plenty of action too. Its rustic-cut copper label read “Pure Black”—a cold-pressed coffee that premiered some weeks earlier, perhaps overshadowed by the hype surrounding the latte.
“The intensity could be yours,” Todd Carmichael, the company’s co-founder and telegenic coffee sourcer, told me. Some customers, he explained, are calibrating their own versions of the two taps’ half-and-half offshoot: the Pure Black and Tan. Still, it is the Draft Latte that has its creator so excited that, before sipping the first of several he would taste over the course of a couple hours, the man ran a small circle around himself, rather like a retriever prophesying a walk.
Carmichael’s fundamental understanding of cold coffee came from the cupping table, and up until developing the new tap system, his not-meant-to-be-hot consumption collectively amounted to a mere 12-ounce cup. But ever since his days as a barista, the concept intrigued him. “The first time someone came in and goes, ‘Can I get a coffee over ice?’” he remembered, “I thought, ‘It’s like someone asking for a hot beer.’ I just didn’t get it.”
During coffee’s “second generation,” an era characterized by “specialty drinks of a European-style nature,” Carmichael grew perplexed with the inaccuracy of one particular iced order. “I always looked over at that latte and thought: ‘That’s not a friggin’ latte. That’s a cafe au lait… unsteamed milk and espresso on ice.’” He went on, and emphasized: “It needs to be texturized. But how do you do that? So ultimately I said to myself, ‘Now is the time I’m going to figure out how to do that.’”
The solution was nitrous oxide. He figured it out while working this past year from his Fishtown office and lab alongside Patrick Libois, a seasoned in-house engineer, and Ted Green, a food sciences intern-turned-staffer praised as “an animal” of a researcher. The R&D trio discovered that nitrous creates “true micro-foam,” and “bends the lactose chain in just a way that it gives you a sense of sweetness,” without the need for added sugar.
Influences came from various sources, including cold brew, “the Japanese method,” and a canister of whipped cream brought to Carmichael's attention by his four-year-old son. “But the true inspiration was Hamdi,” said Carmichael, referring to the founder and CEO of Chobani, who recently became La Colombe’s sole investor.
“A micro-yoghurt guy,” who really knows “craft” is how Carmichael described Hamdi Ulukaya, whom he first met as a friend. He recounted sitting with Ulukaya at a La Colombe cafe and realizing “that his true success was how [yoghurt] felt in your mouth.” Watching people order lattes and cappuccinos, he told himself, “‘I gotta figure that mouthfeel thing out for the cold latte.’”
La Colombe’s signature cold beverage had been a red eye over ice, but the Draft Latte system has caused “a radical alteration,” said Carmichael. He estimated a 25% jump in their overall cold category, and that Fishtown, alone, was going through 10 kegs a day. Behind the bar, the trend has reportedly halved shot volume and shaved three to four minutes off customer waiting time. On the flipside, each day baristas must flush the kegs, the lines, and the taps with Stera Sheen, an industrial sanitizer and cleaner for machines that dispense chilled confections. Each week, all the equipment kept under refrigeration is disassembled for a deeper soak.
The Draft Latte system was set to reach all La Colombe cafes by the end of August and its installation begins at another 200 US venues in late September. The canned versions of both the Draft Latte and the Pure Black will appear by mid-September at La Colombes in Philadelphia and New York as well as two yet unnamed retailers. In early March, the cans go national.
But that’s not all, folks. Plans for renditions made with other coffees and almond milk are astir. And the prospect of even more cafes requesting their own Draft Latte equipment and licensing is “my friggin’ ultimate dream,” said Carmichael.
On the topic of yearnings, I might have asked about the likelihood of a future model for home use. My first Draft Latte seemed to drain faster than any of the many bean-cream combinations I have, since 1982, savored from a plastic cup through a plastic straw.
Karina Hof is a Sprudge staff writer based in Amsterdam. Read more Karina Hof on Sprudge.