Todd Carmichael, cofounder of the growing Philadelphia-based craft-coffee authority La Colombe, had a beef with iced lattes: He couldn’t stand the watered-down beverage that results from cooling steamed milk over ice. So last year, he invented a draft latte system for his cafés. Cold milk is infused with nitrous oxide (producing a silky microfoam), mixed with cold-pressed espresso, and poured from a keg. When sales at one of his Philadelphia outposts jumped 17.5% the week the draft latte was introduced, Carmichael began to think about how to take the drink from his cafés to store shelves.
Pouring a draft latte into cans or bottles would kill its signature texture. To develop a shelf-stable product, Carmichael had to find a way to make the nitrous oxide infusion happen in an airtight environment.
One night while he was eating dessert, Carmichael picked up a can of whipped cream and sprayed it into his son’s mouth. "That sound... brraawwwh! It was like being in the mountains at night, and there’s a lightning bolt, and suddenly you can see the whole mountain and all the trees," he says. He asked his project developer to buy several types of valves and cans.
Carmichael developed a prototype and presented it to Crown, a can manufacturer. Together they refined what became known as the Innovalve—a valve containing nitrous oxide that is installed on the base of the can. Cracking open the lid triggers the release of the nitrous oxide into the drink.
The canned draft latte is coming to meal-delivery service Maple by the end of May, and it will be available in select La Colombe cafés and Whole Foods locations this summer. The price—$2.50 per can—is on par with Starbucks’s bottled iced lattes. For Carmichael, the cans are more than a draft latte delivery system—they’re an integral part of La Colombe’s future. Buoyed by an investment from Chobani founder Hamdi Ulukaya, Carmichael is considering opening cafés nationwide. With a shelf-stable product, he can attract customers long before La Colombe hits their block. The ready-to-drink-coffee industry was valued at $1.4 billion in 2015, but Carmichael sees even bigger potential. "Every two generations, someone comes along and changes the way America interacts with coffee," he says. "I believe this is an $8 billion to $9 billion category, and I would like the lion’s share of it."
A version of this article appeared in the May 2016 issue of Fast Company magazine.