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Chill, Baby, Chill: In Search of the Best Iced Coffee Around

Sipping six cups of chilled caffeine in South Orange and Maplewood.

On hot days when I need a mid-afternoon pick-me-up, the idea of sending a scorching coffee down my throat just isn't an appealing way to put a little pep in my step. For me, hot coffee is relaxing, soothing, with a bit of a maternal influence. Iced coffee, on the other hand, is a sexy companion: reinvigorating, exciting, refreshing. Since the number of warm days is on the rise, it's time to answer The Big Burning Question: Who makes the best iced coffee around?

Hot coffee and iced coffee are two different beasts and require distinct artistries. That's to say, a shop could offer delicious hot coffee and not make a good cup of iced joe. As for my research methods? It's worth noting that I always drink my hot and cold coffee black. Since I don't add any of that frou-frou milk and sugar, there are no alternative variables that get in the way of the real taste of each brew... That can be both a good and bad thing depending on what you're drinking. I'm sorry, I don't mean to offend those who doctor their coffee. To each his own, of course. (I'm just a little uppity due to all that caffeine in my system.)

BONTE
Bonte served the beverage with the least amount of ice in the bunch. While this resulted in the brew not being as refreshingly cold as the others, it did generate more of an actual coffee taste. Not to mention, more bang for the buck. It was rather smooth and mellow but with just a touch of bite. It was the only cup to have a bit of grit in there from the coffee grounds, which I didn't mind. It's like drinking coffee from a French Press—at least you know it's the real stuff. I would have liked the beverage to have just a touch more personality, but it was certainly inoffensively enjoyable. I give it a solid B.

DUNKIN' DONUTS
Knowing that Dunkin' Donuts makes an incredibly light coffee to begin with, I was a little skeptical of how it would hold up to a cup full of ice. Generally speaking, I find their coffee to be inconsistent at best. Many Dunkin' Donuts franchisees make a brew that is so watery it tastes like dirty dishwater. That said, the South Orange location makes one of the best cups of coffee I ever found at a Dunkin' Donuts. The cup was loaded with as much ice as the cup could possibly handle, which was just too much for the light brew to compete with. That and I found it to be just a tad on the flat side. Overall, it was drinkable and refreshing in a barely-coffee sort of way. Dunkin' Donuts gets a C.

(I know, considering how I blasted their bagels, I appear to have a very low opinion of Dunkin' Donuts, but I find it worth repeating that their Boston creme donuts are a sinful delight, particularly after drinking far too many iced coffees on an empty stomach.)

VILLAGE COFFEE
I've had delicious experiences at Village Coffee before but I'm sorry to say, this was not one of them. Their iced coffee earns the title of the worst cup I consumed. I couldn't even stand to finish it. The coffee tasted totally overcooked, like they just added ice to whatever leftover brew was sitting in the pot the whole day prior. It was far too bitter to drink. It's times like this that I wish I added overflowing scoops of sugar and generous pours of milk to my coffee; it would have at least been palatable that way. Unfortunately, Village Coffee completely flunked with an F, though I'd be willing to give them a makeup test. It could have just been a fluke.

CRANE'S
What a delicious cup of iced coffee! It had a great coffee taste that held up well to the generous amount of ice that made it refreshingly enjoyable. The body was solid and well-balanced, not too light, not too dark. It had just enough complexity to make it interesting. You can tell they start with good beans. I'd be very interested to learn the process of how they make it. My favorite, Crane's, earns an A.

CAIT & ABBY'S
This cup had some of the same foibles as the Village Coffee iced coffee, though not nearly as pronounced. It wasn't horrible, though there was a slightly smoky taste, which I didn't find appealing in the least. It tasted slightly stale and was too bitter. The Cait & Abby's iced coffee was drinkable and certainly had a personality that some may find enjoyable. I'll go with a C- on this, though it was pretty close to a D+.

STARBUCKS
Starbucks coffee has a very distinctive taste to it. You may like their fancy frozen drinks, but most people either love or hate their coffee. Their beans are very darkly roasted—what some would call burnt. While it's not my favorite coffee in the world, I find it consistent from location to location; it's always a safe bet for me. I vastly prefer too dark to too light. Their iced coffee had the exact same character as their hot coffee, so you definitely have to like one to like the other. But the brew was able to hold its own against the ice and even maintain its distinct personality, which I discovered is not always easy to do with iced coffee. Starbucks earns a B+.

MAKE YOUR OWN
Interested in saving some bucks by making your own iced coffee at home? The basic trick is to start with a stronger brew than typical. This helps the coffee hold up to being diluted by that reinvigorating scoop of ice. Jon Thorn's "The Coffee Companion" offers a great alternative method to brewing a pot and sticking ice in it. In two pints of cold water, mix in three or so tablespoons of ground coffee. After letting it sit in the fridge for 12 hours, strain it and put it back in until you're ready to use it. “The extract will keep for several days in the refrigerator, and many people find beverages made from it easier to digest than regular coffee, because the gentle process extracts few oils and hardly any acidity from the coffee.” It tends to be strong, though, so you'll likely want to ice it up or water it down to personal preference.

Finally, if you'll excuse me, I need to figure out a way to get my hand to stop shaking. Why did it just now occur to me that I could have asked for decaf?

Ben Salmon is a former literary agent and the owner of Kitchen a la Mode: Accessories for Cooking & Entertaining in the heart of downtown South Orange. Each week, his local food column at Patch explores the food and drink scene in South Orange, Maplewood and Millburn.

Have an idea for something you'd like me to explore? E-mail me. I'd love to hear from you.

Elissa Malespina May 08, 2009 at 11:28 PM
Great article. If only I drank coffee... When are you going to do one on ice tea. That I drink
Laura Bessey May 09, 2009 at 04:12 AM
Love, Love my ice coffee this article was great! Now I know exactly where to go and what I will find around each corner. Thanks!!!

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