The prototype of Nitro Pepsi tastes like an ice cream float.
My mom has an amusing habit while drinking soda. She swirls it in the glass and swishes every sip in her mouth before swallowing to temper the drink’s carbonation. When pressed about this odd behavior, she figured it was a preference she adopted growing up in the era of soda jerks who pulled fizzy water and stirred in syrup to order back before machines did all the work. More a fan of the mix-ins than the bubbles, her go-to order was heavy on the former, easy on the latter. Thus her acquired taste for a less sparkling version of the same colas we drink pre-portioned today. I was reminded of my mother’s proclivity yesterday when Pepsi invited me to taste test the soft drink company’s latest innovation — the industry’s first nitrogen-infused cola, Nitro Pepsi.
Officially announced today, but still very much in a prototype phase, the ‘Signature’ version of the drink (there’s a Vanilla flavor, too) uses essentially the same recipe as traditional Pepsi, but ditches the crisp, palate biting bubbles of carbonation for smoother nitrogen which is already a mainstay of high-end, on-tap cold brew and dark, stout-y beers. Like a freshly-poured Guinness, Nitro Pepsi’s micro-bubbles cascade downward and the a frothy head forms at the top of the glass, remaining there much longer than that familiar fizzle of fountain sodas.
“Cola has been the same for 125 years as a category and yeah there's been changes in flavor and packaging, things of that sort, but the idea of carbonation has never really come off of it because it's so identifiable with soda,” Pepsi’s VP of Marketing Todd Kaplan explained. “As we started getting into this process with putting nitrogen in, Nitro Pepsi came about. It’s a really unique taste profile, it’s silky and smooth, it's creamy, it's got a very different mouthfeel […] It’s undeniably Pepsi, but it’s not soda.”
As with nitro cold brew coffee, Nitro Pepsi is meant to be served cold but not over ice, and sipped from the glass rather than sucked through a straw. (I asked if the straw-less feature was in response to recent backlashes against plastic waste. It’s not, but, Kaplan admitted, “That could be an added benefit.”) I’d liken it to drinking a Pepsi float, but without any ice cream involved. It’s richer and fuller on the palate while still reminding me of it’s carbonated cousin.
Probably the biggest hurdle for Nitro Pepsi is just how it will get into the public’s hands. Most current Pepsi-slinging establishments don’t have the proper dispensing equipment (heck, even Starbucks doesn’t have full nitro-tap saturation at the moment). “That's all the stuff that we’re exploring,” Kaplan said. “This is a prototype, but we are looking right now at a dispense solution that would involve some equipment in restaurants as we would roll it out. We’re also paralleling by looking into a can solution. The technology exists, you’ve probably seen the can of Guinness with the little widget, that little ball in the bottom. There are a lot of technologies that are out there that right now our R&D team is currently exploring just to see what is the best way to preserve the formula and the taste, and also be able to launch this thing down the road.”
But the hurdles don’t stop there: As a beverage that’s not quite the soda we’ve become so accustomed to and more in line with a smooth beer or cold brew coffee experience, I sipped and sipped wondering what the proper occasion would be for a nitro cola. Certainly, if the beer industry’s push toward zero-percent ABV is any indication, there’s a market for non-boozy drinks that aren’t soda at bars, restaurants, and at home. At the tasting, the Signature Nitro Pepsi was paired with fries and red pepper ketchup, while the Vanilla iteration was paired with a bourbon barbecue slider. And, to my taste, it certainly worked much in the way a porter or stout beer might pair well with beefy or fried foods. To that end, likely early targets for Nitro Pepsi taps will be restaurants, stadiums, and other special occasion venues where the visibility and kitsch factor of trying something unique would be an easier sell.
But don’t hold your breath just yet. Kaplan says Nitro Pepsi is still very much in the “development process,” which is why I, along with a few other media outlets, were the first try it outside of Pepsi employees. But the brand does feel it’s ready for the public to weigh in on, so attendees of new month’s Super Bowl LIII in Coca-Cola’s hometown of Atlanta (yes, enemy territory for Pepsi) should be on the lookout for tasting booths happening around the time of the big game — the first of a few “big cultural events” the company plans to infiltrate.
However once it does hit the market, I’ll tell my mom to check it out if only so she can finally take a break from manually flattening out her soft drinks. It's really distracting.