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The Ugly Mugg, a recently opened coffee shop off of Broadway and Fifth Street, offers a variety of unique cold and hot drinks, snacks and a variety of community events.

Jessi Dodge/Senior Staff Photographer

Ugly Mugg fuses technology with coffee

Nitrogen-infused coffee, a specialized blender and kegs help Ugly Mugg create unique coffee creations.

By Jared Kaufman and Katie Rosso | Sept. 21, 2016

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For Jenny Thompson, operating a coffee shop is like running a marathon.

Last October, she ran a 5K and a half-marathon in back-to-back days as part of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon series. Now, less than a year later, she’s the owner of Ugly Mugg on Fifth Street.

“So it’s kind of like when your family is at the end of that finish line waiting for you to cross and have your victorious ‘I did it,’” Thompson said. “It takes a whole lot of work to get to that finish line. So now we’re open, and we’re kind of starting the second leg of the race.”

Ugly Mugg is located north of Broadway, four to six blocks away from every other downtown coffee shop.

“Instead of being on Ninth Street, where all the other coffee shops are, why not move to a different location in the downtown?” she said. “That way I can reach more customers. And then I thought, ‘Each of the coffee shops downtown have their own niche, so what’s mine gonna be?’”

Thompson settled on alcoholic coffee, which she said is popular in European countries. A lot of her recipes are tweaked versions of European concoctions she found online.

“I did hundreds of trials of how do I get this just right so that not only myself, but my customers, will enjoy these drinks,” she said. “I worked on the whole menu for about two and a half months. There was a lot of thought and planning into the menu. And it’s still growing and changing as we find out what works and what doesn’t work.”

During Ugly Mugg’s 10-day soft open period in the beginning of August, they test drove several drinks that did not make it on their final menu. Now, those options are part of a “secret menu.”

“The best thing that might not be on the menu is our San Andreas, which was our version of a Mudslide,” Thompson said. “It was with a Frappuccino base instead of an ice cream, and it has rum, it has vodka, it has loads of chocolate sauce, Oreos and whipped cream. It was delicious, it was just difficult to make quickly.”

For their whole menu, uniformed military and emergency personnel — police officers, firefighters and EMTs — get a 20 percent discount, and those not in uniform receive 15 percent off.

“We’ve seen quite a few that will come both when they’re on-duty and when they’re off-duty,” Thompson said. “Their drink choices change, but they’re starting to really enjoy that, and I think they really appreciate those discounts because the service that they do is really hard. So we try and give back.”

Thompson’s grandfather worked for 29 years with the New York City Police Department, her father served for 35 years in the U.S. Navy, and her brother is finishing his qualifications to fly Black Hawk helicopters for the Army.

“My whole family is super involved in both police and military,” Thompson said. “That’s my family. I know the sacrifices that they make and that the families have to make, and I want to make sure they’re recognized for all that they do, because that’s so incredibly hard on everyone.”

Thompson has been working on making the coffee shop look nice since March, but she said her significant other, John, and her uncle Ray have been working much longer. They did more early prep work, but she laid some flooring, stained bar tables and cabinets and assembled the bar itself.

“The vast majority of the finishing touches — the things you can see — I played a large role in,” she said.

She and John also came up with various technologies behind the bar of the shop.

In a refrigerator under the bar sits two kegs. No, they’re not full of beer — one keg has cold hot chocolate and the other has cold-brewed coffee. Both kegs are hooked up to a nitrogen tank. The food-grade gas is constantly pumping into the kegs to cool down the liquid, which is then served on tap above the bar.

“What the nitrogen does is it takes out the bitterness and the acidity that a coffee normally has,” Thompson said. “So even though it’s really caffeinated, you don’t have the acid burn that sometimes a really caffeinated coffee will give you.”

The shop gets its nitrogen from Airgas in Holts Summit, Missouri. Thompson said finding the gas was actually one of the harder things about setting up the shop, because she had to find someone who actually sold food-grade nitrogen. She thought nitrogen would draw in the summer market, a time when coffee houses often lose a lot of business.

“Before we brought [nitrogen] to Columbia, you had to go to a big city to even try it,” Thompson said. “So we were really excited and we thought it tasted fantastic. We wanted to give everyone in Columbia the chance to have it, because that’s really far to go get a cup of nitrogen. You’d spend more on gas.”

To make espresso, Thompson picked a Franke Pura, a “smart” machine that is fully automated. The Pura knows when it needs to be cleaned and when it is running low on supplies, and it even detects if the milk isn’t thick enough to make high-end coffee. The machine also makes chai and hot chocolate.

“It also takes out some of the barista work of having to load the coffee. It actually drops the beans and grinds them per shot of espresso so you don’t actually have a pre-ground bean,” Thompson said. “From barista to barista, you can have a totally different espresso even if you have the same bean.”

This is because of tamping, a technique that packs the coffee into a puck that more evenly distributes the coffee. The machine tamping takes the guesswork out of the espresso, and Thompson said that if you have Ugly Mugg’s espresso once, you know it’s going to taste the same every single time.

Ugly Mugg recently installed a second tap in order to start selling nitrogen-infused Italian sodas. The sodas will feature a club soda base with nitrogen and a house blend whipped cream with vanilla rum.

“Our nitro Italian sodas are our new baby right now, our new science experiment,” Thompson said.

Thompson also sprung for a certain coffee maker that makes iced tea and a top-of-the-line blender, which makes smoother iced drinks than blenders you would use at home.

“A commercial-grade blender is actually super expensive, which is something that I didn’t quite expect,” Thompson said. “I think we ended 1,500 bucks for a commercial blender. That’s how we get some of our blended drinks really well-blended.”

The shop gets requests often for caramel frappuccinos and their Salty Sea Turtle, which has a frappuccino base with alcohol. The inventions are largely Thompson’s, who was inspired by Pinterest — “lot of fun, lots of mad science experiments.”

“Quite a few of them are my inventions and some of them are after hours and hours of research and testing,” Thompson said. “They’re reminiscent of other drinks, but we put our own twists on them.”

Edited by George Roberson | groberson@themaneater.com

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