Straight from the source: The heart of Shark Mountain coffee and chocolate

Jonny Nuckols set out to create an elevated experience for coffee- and chocolate-lovers by making single-sourcing and premium quality a priority at Shark Mountain. Photo: Tom McGovern Jonny Nuckols set out to create an elevated experience for coffee- and chocolate-lovers by making single-sourcing and premium quality a priority at Shark Mountain. Photo: Tom McGovern

In April 2013, Jonny Nuckols and his team of enthusiastic coffee gourmands opened Shark Mountain Coffee. Philippe Sommer, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership and the i.Lab at the Darden School of Business, had space for a café, and Nuckols, a former Burley Middle School math teacher-turned-entrepreneur, had an idea in line with the spirit of the i.Lab’s mission: “a nexus for entrepreneurship and innovation…[meant to inspire] deep cross-collaboration with no boundaries, across disciplines, schools or ways of thinking.”

“We will work towards forming collectives with other shops, feature other roasters’ coffees, create a customer co-op with a democratic voice and eventually a barista timeshare in which baristas from other shops and other cities can literally run the shop for a day,” Nuckols told a reporter a couple of days before opening at 621 Nash Dr., between the UVA School of Law and Darden. “We want to make coffee a craft akin to wine and beer, and Charlottesville a destination coffee city.”

Although the demands of the past three years of ownership have halted the co-op rhetoric, Nuckols and company certainly seem to be making good on the promise of spearheading a java renaissance.

A little more than two years ago Nuckols had an epiphany: Since Shark Mountain was already importing and roasting cocoa beans, and making its own syrups and sauces, why not up the ante, enlist a chocolatier and produce bean-to-bar chocolates as an accompaniment to the shop’s already thriving single-source coffee offerings?

“I realized the paths to making good coffee and good chocolate are similar,” says Nuckols. “They’re both complementary and challenging in their own way. …At first. I thought chocolate is more complex, there are certain things you have to do. There’s refining and tempering and a lot more chemistry involved. So I was a little hesitant to get into it.”

However, the allure of another foray into the realm of fine, artisanal craftsmanship drew Nuckols in, and for guidance he turned to baker-turned-chocolate-maker Christian Anderson.

Photo: Tom McGovern
Photo: Tom McGovern

“You know, it’s a very scientifically minded process,” says Anderson. “Whether it’s nutty, fruity, spicy or whatever kind of flavor tone the bean might have, we want to make sure that flavor is coming through as purely as possible.”

To retain this integrity of flavor, and in keeping with Shark Mountain’s ideology, the new line of bean-to-bar chocolates were likewise to consist entirely of single-source offerings.

“We aim to keep things simple,” says Nuckols. “We just use cocoa and sugar, so all the other flavors you taste are intrinsic to the bean and the process.”

But what about the single-origin distinction? What’s so important about it and what does it do for the chocolates?

Bryan Graham, founder of and chocolatier for Spokane, New York’s acclaimed Fruition Chocolate, told Wired magazine: “Finding a good chocolate bean is tricky and depends on quite a few factors. The genetics and geographic region in which they’re grown is extremely important. If you don’t have great beans, you won’t have great flavor.”

Thus, the Shark Mountain logic seems to run that, via securing a primo selection of regionally specific, genetically superior beans and steering clear of blending and the use of other seasoning agents, the integrity of the crop’s natural flavor will be retained. This focus results in a taste sensation not only truthful to the beans themselves but to the ecosystem that produced them.

“We create chocolate with superior, nuanced flavor for chocolate enthusiasts and taste-seekers alike,” says Nuckols. “Our hope is that, when a customer tries one of our offerings”—which include the geographically eponymous Madagascar Sambirano Valley, Trinidad San Juan Estates and Tanzania Kokoa Kimila, among others—“they’ll find our confidence justified.”

Shark Mountain products are available at a variety of shops in the area, including its coffee at Studio Ix and Grit Coffee locations, and its chocolate at Beer Run and Foods of All Nations.

–Eric J. Wallace