Best local coffee

After water, coffee is the world’s most popular beverage. For most, it’s also a way of life. “Long before the great coffee craze, I was born and raised in an era when it was totally natural for my family to serve us kids espresso after dinner,” says Tony LaBua, owner of the Java Hut and Chap’s Ice Cream on the Downtown Mall. “Along with our thick black coffee, we’d get a shot of Sambuca and three coffee beans—one for luck, love and happiness.

“I only drink straight espresso to this day,” he adds.

With a history rooted in the tradition of everyday life, these days coffee is not only convention, it’s a flat-out staple. In 1668, it replaced beer as New York City’s favorite breakfast drink. Heck, Pope Clement VIII even baptized the stuff.

“Growing up in Vietnam,” says Toan Nguyen, co-owner of C’ville Coffee in the McIntire Business Park, “we had Vietnamese coffee—thick and dark like espresso mixed with condensed milk—with every meal.”

But what is it about the taste of the dark, energy-inducing stuff? While one palate craves the winy acidity of a hearty cup of Kenyan, another prefers a classic Colombian—sweet and spicy. Determined to unravel the Charlottesville coffee mystery, I took the search for the perfect cup of java into my own hands. My journey through palatable and non-palatable coffee-ville consisted of thorough investigations into body, acidity and aroma—at one point I was so over-caffeineated a barrista gave me a stick to gnaw on. (Think Voltaire. Even with his 50 cups a day, he’s got nothing on me.)

With that, I began my odyssey for Charlottesville’s perfect cup of coffee.

 

Cafe stories

I set out early one morning, pumped and ready for the greatest coffee expedition of all time. Unlike Lewis and Clark, I would travel by more traditional Virginia means—a red Chevy pick-up truck with a cracked windshield. First on the agenda was fuel. I pulled into the Preston Avenue Shell Station.

Turned out besides gas, they had coffee too.

Green Mountain Coffee was the name, and as I pumped my first cup from the carafe, I imagined sheep quietly laying about chomping on the grassy knoll in the distance.

A scene befitting this “organic” Joe—but one slurp and I was snapped back to the newspaper and Coca-Cola aisle. The sour aftertaste made my fillings ache. The overall weak flavor was comparable to burnt rubber mixed with the gamy essence, of, say, liquid venison.

Code for second-rate beans, I knew “organic” Joes masqueraded behind buzzwords like shade-grown, sustainable and bird-beak friendly. But with this cup I concluded no amount of emphasis on the humanized relationship between farmer, exporter, importer, roaster, consumer and the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center could make me drink this coffee again.

I used the remainder of my cup to top-off the gas tank (curiously, the truck ran exceptionally well for the day—peppy, even), and continued on my journey down Preston to Barracks Road.

On my way, I took a quick detour into Bodo’s for another cup and a little sustenance. The menu read, “BoJoe is a premium gourmet offering custom-roasted and -blended coffee ground just before serving.” I also learned while ordering my bagel that the blend’s specially mixed from Lexington Coffee Roasting Company.

The bagel blend was easy enough going down, but the medicinal aftertaste reminded me of liquid Dimetapp.

While I wasn’t screaming in agony, the salty sting on the anterior sides of my tongue made me think this Joe was better for stripping furniture than washing down a lox bagel.

The truck purred past Kroger and into Greenberry’s in the Barracks Road Shopping Center, where I proceeded to wait in a line backed up to the door.

A manager there explained to me that, “Greenberry’s coffee beans are carefully selected by Greenberry’s Coffee & Tea Company, then shipped to Charlottesville for roasting.”

“Great, I’ll take the light roast,” I said.

While I also learned the lighter roasts at Greenberry’s vary between Costa Rican, Columbian and Guatemalan, frankly, I didn’t care about the coffee’s country of origin. It was just plain good.

With a slightly bitter after taste and a fast finish, the coffee, the coffee was full of body, like whole milk as opposed to water. While I generally prefer a darker roast, this cup was sharp and snappy and changed my mind about the world of lighter brews.

Although I longed to stay, read the paper and maybe push the library ladder around a bit, I found myself back in the truck on the way to Starbucks on the Corner.

The Seven-11 en route pulled me in like a tractor beam, a tiny voice calling out, “Slurpee…you need a Slurpee….” Alas, the brain-freezing, gooey goodness would not satisfy my quest, and I passed the rotating hot dogs and dragged myself over to the coffee bar.

But one sip left me immediately sorry that I didn’t give in to the freezie-queasy. The coffee was thin and soft, with not a trace of acidity to be found. It could have been there since the prior shift (or the prior shift the day before, even). Or someone might have brewed a few teaspoons of dirt by accident. But the consensus was clear: There’s a reason it’s quick and cheap.

“Maybe a little food might ease the pain,” the voice in my head said. Anything to wipe out the musty aftertaste in my mouth. Behold, the power of Chee-tos and funky coffee.

Before food, though, I couldn’t miss out on a cup from Mermaid Express in its sunny, airy new space in Foods of All Nations. It’s by far the best coffeehouse for meeting fellow Junior Leaguers for a dose of caffeine.

The Mermaid’s cup certainly delivered. A delicate, subtle flavor that immediately satisfied the tip of my tongue, this Joe had an easy start, and an easier finish. I knew this coffee had real promise, but I also knew I had to press on.

I parked myself at the one-time automotive garage/now restaurant, Station. Although my Joe here was paired with a nice chunk of tiramisu, I couldn’t get past the over-roasted bean smell of the coffee. It did have a rich, full body, but the aftertaste was a bit too metallic. Again, no good for the fillings.

Finally arriving at Starbucks, I was happy to see that no one had thrown another brick through the mud mogul’s window the night before. I ordered the coffee of the day—Breakfast Blend.

OK, so the coffee giant has a bad rap for mistreating Fair Trade cocoa or coffee farmers in distant lands. My taste buds, having no morals of their own, didn’t seem to care. This really was one balanced cup of coffee, from beginning to end.

The aroma held a twinge of raw vegetables and nutmeg, but the round taste was sweetly spicy, like cardamom and pepper. Sharp but not salty, it had a pleasingly even tone of acidity, giving it that aged wine aftertaste.

While on the Corner, I tried my hand at the Espresso Royale Caffe on University Avenue. I felt a bit guilty (and old) leisurely lounging by the fireplace with my rather pleasing cup. Several students surrounded me with their heads in notebooks, pencils scrawling madly, and blue veins in foreheads pulsating wildly. I knew how they felt. Now on my eighth cup, I was growing more jittery than a college student slipping a late paper under the professor’s door as he turns the corner.

Nonetheless, this cup deserved good marks—the carbony aftertaste mixed well with the distinct flavor of freshly mowed alfalfa.

Fed but feeling a bit too fidgety for my own good, I was still prepared to continue my journey to the Downtown Mall.

After parking, I cut through York Place and hit Higher Grounds. Dodging the group of red-and-green-haired mall rats hanging by the public restrooms, I walked over to the coffee station and decided to go with the “90 Full Bodied” blend. The cold, steel, overly pierced atmosphere of the place did nothing for me aesthetically, but my “90” blend went down well. It was the heavy, pungent aftertaste that threw the back of my tongue for a loop. So good at the start, yet with such an unexpected ending. No phone calls, no flowers, nothing.

At the Java Hut, in front of Chap’s on the Mall, I purchased a small cup of Shenandoah Joe’s Jitterbug Blend. It seemed appropriate considering my physical state. A bit too floral in the beginning, the taste pushed my entire palette and featured a vaguely caramel flavor. I had my suspicions some nuts might even have been tossed into this roasting. Strangely, I rather liked it.

City Centro was close by, so with my hand noticeably shaking, I handed over my dollar for a small cup. It was in this common coffee destination I noted that with each sip, I would turn to the person next to me and describe the flavors. “My God, how long have I been doing this?” I wondered. Fearing they might call the police, or even worse cut me off, I took my cup and ran.

Yes, I was beginning to lose it. I was actually percolating brown sweat. But I do thank this particular dark roast for pulling me through. Rich but not overly complex, it completely avoided the dreaded “dirty/rubbery” flavor. It had a woody and earthy finish, with a hint perhaps of clove.

After my incident at City Centro, I knew I had to get out of town. I decided to take a drive on 250E.

 

Near Ivy, I pulled off at the Toddsbury of Ivy store. In 1475, Turkish law made it legal for a woman to divorce her husband if he failed to provide her with her daily coffee quota or if the daily quota consisted of something likely akin to Toddsbury’s S & D Coffee. Although quite cheap at 59 cents per eight-ounce cup, this stuff would be better used as shellac for wood paneling. (Decorators take note: They do sell it by the pound there.)

Farther down the road, the old gas-guzzler needed a refill, and I was beginning to lose my buzz, so I veered off at the Brownsville Market.

Although the woman behind the counter wasn’t certain what kind of coffee I had just poured, she did sell me on a delicious corn dog. That is, I think it was delicious—after one sip, the java removed the top layer of my tongue. I can only say the coffee was plain, thin, under-brewed and fairly dead. Like the skin in my mouth.

On my way to downtown Crozet, I began to get a little worried about my jumpy self. First of all, as I sneezed, my eyes never closed. Secondly, when I did so I poured the rest of the scalding coffee all over myself and didn’t feel a thing. Then, the real trouble began.

Right there on the side of the road was Juan Valdez, the patron saint of java drinkers everywhere, and his donkey. As I slowed down, mouth agape, he began yelling to me, “One-quart warm water, a half-teaspoon liquid dish detergent and a tablespoon of white vinegar!” He waved and pointed to my shirt, revealing the secret to getting rid of hard-to-remove stains. I think his donkey may have actually been smiling at me.

I swerved into the parking lot of Ombra’s Café. To help recover from my hallucination I would have sold my soul for a bucket of steamed mussels in saffron broth to even out my caffeine-ridden system, but I had more suppliers to hit before the setting sun. While the coffee itself was reminiscent of unripe fruit, the overall flavor was surprisingly mellow, with enough salt in the aftertaste to cancel out the somewhat sugary beginning.

Hitting Pantops on my way back to Charlottesville, I ventured into the Mudhouse out there for what I consider a dependable cup of coffee. Using beans by Lexington Coffee Roasting Company, what BoJoe’s same beans lacked, this cup made up for: A mild, winy cup of Joe, everything a subtle blend should be. And yet, not quite what I was looking for.

While in the area, I hauled myself up the hill to Giant. I was hopeful when my Joe smelled flowery and nutty all at once. But the taste induced instant heartburn. I grabbed some Tums, and headed toward the Allied Business Park on Harris Street.

After 16 cups of coffee, I needed a break from the stuff—I hadn’t blinked my eyes in over three hours. So before venturing into C’ville Coffee, I stopped into local roaster Shenandoah Joe’s Harris Street location to watch the roasting beans go ‘round and ‘round, and both curse and bless them for inspiring my day’s travails.

“You’ve got to be careful of bitter flavors when buying freshly roasted dark coffees,” said Dave Fafara, co-owner of the 3-year-old local roaster. “People often make the common mistake of roasting too hot and too fast.” He’s learned by trial and error—he roasts nearly 750 pounds of the stuff per week.

By the way, when Fafara and I discussed sugar versus cream, he recommended drinking your Joe like he does, “as a purist.”

We both agreed on the following things, though: If you must dilute your cup, please, use cream (milk is so 1985). Some brews, such as Indonesian blends, complement both cream and milk quite well. In reality though, any dark roasted heavy blend will hold up to your white stuff. As for sweeteners, we concluded they’re all bad but if you must have something, honey is better than sugar. (Author’s note: If you use flavored syrups or Coffeemate, this article will explode in 10 seconds.)

Following my brief respite I returned to the coffee trail, heading to C’ville Coffee. Rows of books and magazines, cherry wood and the smell of freshly brewed beans hit me instantly. I took my cup over to the coffee station and poured my worn-out, over-stimulated self what I considered to be the best cup of Joe I’d had all day.

Mellow with a sweetly floral and herb start, this Joe with balanced acidity was tender on my over-worked liver. The round, malty body and the dry, chocolaty tones—oh, I was certain it had to be too good to be true. And to prove it, I knew I had to have just one more cup.

In a fluster, I hauled over to Spudnuts on Avon Street. All right, certainly one or two fresh potato donuts couldn’t hurt, either.

The potato delicacies didn’t necessarily help, though—you’d think the water used to boil the potatoes was the same water used to brew the coffee. But who was I kidding, really? I just couldn’t get the thought of the C’ville Coffee, with its robust flavor, out of my mind. I had to go back, just for one last taste.

As co-owner Toan Nguyen let me in on the secret—Gavina brand coffee—I savored my favorite brew. I had learned a lot this day—from cleaning advice to roasting advice, I had finally found the perfect cup of coffee, served in the perfect coffee atmosphere. (Which was good because Nguyen told me I could spend the night between a couple of bookshelves if I wasn’t able to drive home.) His wife and business co-owner, Betsy Patrick, then proceeded to fix me a sandwich as I rested my weary, yet jittery, bones in the kids’ section.

I didn’t even mind that I had forgotten to take the wax paper off the sandwich first. And I realized that the perfect beverage to complement my meal was…well, you know.

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