It’s been really hot. We’re all sweaty and sluggish, and most of us could use a good jolt to get through the dog days of summer.
Enter iced coffee, which, on a steamy day, can taste like the ambrosia of the gods…as long as it’s done right.
Brew a regular cup of coffee, let it cool and drop in a few ice cubes and you’ll be left with a bland, weak, watered-down brew. It might cool you down, but it won’t taste very good. There’s an art to brewing a flavorful glass of iced coffee, and coffee shops and markets all over town are mastering it with different techniques.
None of them are necessarily better than others, it’s just “a matter of preference,” says Milli Coffee Roasters owner Nick Leichtentritt.
Here are some of the methods local coffee shops are using right now.
A few years ago, almost nobody was cold-brewing coffee, says Shark Mountain owner and head coffee roaster Jonny Nuckols. Now, it’s all the rage, probably because the cold-brew method yields a smooth, flavorful, non-acidic beverage ideal for adding some cream and sipping slowly, he says.
Cold-brew coffee is a distinct way of brewing. As its name implies, it never touches heat. To create a batch of Shark Mountain cold brew, Nuckols finely grinds a light-roast coffee and adds the grounds to a filter bag within a nylon bag inside a five-gallon bucket. He pours about three gallons of cool water onto the grounds and lets the mixture soak for 20 to 24 hours. Then, he pours the filtered, concentrated brew into a five-gallon keg and adds water to bring the brew to a normal, but still fairly strong, strength. It’s dispensed from the keg and poured over ice as customers order.
This method extracts good flavors from the bean while leaving out the bitterness found in hot coffees, says Nuckols. Depending on the bean used, you’ll taste more chocolate, nut and berry flavors than you might with a hot cup of coffee, but you won’t get as robust a flavor profile, because high temperature is what ultimately draws out all of those notes. But still, “cold brew is definitely a good thing for the coffee industry,” he says. You can try Shark Mountain cold brew at Studio IX or at the iLab at Darden.
Shenandoah Joe’s Brain Freeze is also a cold-brew iced coffee. Owner Dave Fafara says his shops use a blend of coffees created specifically for iced coffee. Their 16-hour, triple-strained cold brew is popular: Fafara estimates that, during the summer, Shenandoah Joe moves between 100 and 125 gallons in Charlottesville each week. And JM Stock Provisions also sells cold brew—you can take home a growler of it—which they brew in-house.
Over at Milli Coffee Roasters on the corner of Preston Avenue and McIntire Road, Leichtentritt uses the Japanese-style iced coffee method. The resulting brew is “a little more well-balanced,” he says. “One of the big selling points of cold-brew coffee is that people say it’s very low-acid.” But, to him, “that little bit of acid is what helps make a good, balanced cup of coffee.”
Like cold brew, the Japanese-style method begins with finely ground coffee and a filter, but this method uses hot water. “It’s essentially like brewing really strong coffee” that is immediately poured—and thus cooled and diluted—over ice, Leichtentritt says. The cooled coffee is then stored in a carafe and poured over ice once again upon serving.
Cooling the coffee right away is the key. High temperatures bring out a coffee’s flavor, but the longer a brew is exposed to air as it cools, the more those flavor-packed compounds break down. Cooling the coffee quickly, with ice, helps trap and preserve those compounds.
Other shops around town, including Atlas Coffee and Mudhouse, make their iced coffee using a similar process. It’s the easiest way to make a lot of iced coffee quickly, says one Mudhouse barista.
Nitro coffee, one of the latest coffee trends, is more like a craft beer than a brewed coffee, says Snowing in Space Coffee Co. co-owner Paul Dierkes. Nitro isn’t served on ice, but it is cold brewed and served cold from a keg. It tastes great black, but if cream and sugar is your thing, pour ’em in.
To brew nitro, Snowing in Space cold brews coffee on a large scale, kegs it, then pumps nitrogen gas into the keg at a high pressure for a long time to essentially agitate the brew. It’s served directly from the keg’s tap. Dierkes likens the resulting brew to a Guinness (a nitrogenated beer); it’s smooth, thick and creamy, with a foamy head.
Snowing in Space sources its beans from Shenandoah Joe and offers three single-origin brews, including the straightforward, nutty Brazilian Gimme-Dat and the unusual blueberry Lil Blue, and plans on introducing more varieties, including a cocoa mole flavor, soon. “The goal is experimentation,” Dierkes says while admitting he’s not a coffee connoisseur. “Let’s get experimental with styles and flavors and get interesting coffees to people.”
You can try Snowing in Space’s nitro coffee at Paradox Pastry, Keevil & Keevil Grocery and Champion Brewery. But it isn’t the only nitro in town—Shenandoah Joe and Mudhouse offer it as well.