It was some years ago that we, Jon and Andrea, began to dream of serving a sweet, black cup of coffee to our customers in Arkansas. This coffee, the mythical bridge between the blended chocolate drink and a strong black cup, needed to combine the delicate flavors only present when coffee is grown and processed with love and care, roasted to enhance but not mask flavor, and brewed to highlight those flavors, with the kind of customer service that meets people where they are- a solid, kind approach built on a desire to please them not only in the exchange at the counter, but with the drink they sip over meetings, laptops, and books.
Out of this dream is how Onyx Coffee Lab was born in October of 2012. Back then, we were struggling to get access to the kind of green coffee samples we were interested in. When no one knows who you are, no one wants to take a chance on you. We came out blazing with siphons, Kyoto cold brew towers, and weekly cuppings and classes, anything we could do to get customers asking why. Today we consist of a roasting facility, three stores with another on the way, 59 baristas, two roasters, a delivery guy, a warehouse grandpa, and a toddler.
No matter what beverage is created with coffee in our cafes, it all starts with the green coffee. We believe that no amount of roasting expertize or beverage mixology can take the place of the kind of green coffee that’s the result of intentionality at the farm level. Coffees that are grown and harvested to maintain quality and consistency from cherry ripeness to density then processed to continue that quality create a coffee that is clean, flavorful and interesting from cup to cup. Our commitment to seeking out quality green coffee ranges from trips to origin were Jon, part owner, and green buyer, cups hundreds of coffees in search of the one or two that fits what we are looking for. At times this yields small, one bag micro-lots, picked and processed specifically for Onyx that has gone on to win Good Food Awards and place in regional and national barista competitions. At times this yields bringing in a container to split within buying groups we work with in order to offer a great coffee for an extended time. We can’t visit every farm we would like to in the world, so the rest of the sourcing work is done in our lab. We roast and cup dozens of coffee samples a week - narrowing them down to coffees that taste great as an espresso, pallets of lots designed to make up our Sugar Skull House blend, and single bags of coffee we vac-pac and sell in small releases.
Farm to Cup
From there the green coffee enters our roasting process. We roast on two machines: a Diedrich IR-12 and a vintage Diedrich IR-40 we’ve rebuilt and restored. The profiling process is a meticulous balance between developing the coffees enough to bring out the sugar browning flavors without masking the delicate floral and fruit notes a coffee may have. Rather than think about roast level to describe our coffees, we categorize them on a scale of traditional to modern flavors. Traditional is sugar browning to dry distillation flavors - chocolates, nuts, wines, tobacco. Modern represents fruits, floral, and citrus flavors.
Before we roast, we analyze moisture content, barometric pressure, age of the green coffee, origin, processing method, and then we roast 4-6 batches, taking each a degree or so hotter, pushing development, playing with charge temperature, to see which roast yields the best possible cup. Then we cup the different profiles at 2 days, and then again at 5, at 10, to learn how it ages, what pops up in the bowl that we don’t like, which flavors linger. Sometimes we nail it the first time, other times we roast batches and batches trying to get it right. We do this because we are serious about putting the best coffee out there. We are not interested in putting coffees out that we aren’t in love with. We have at times, sadly, pulled whole micro lots or pallets of coffee from our menu because it is not cupping how we like or because it is aging poorly. While this is not what we intend, sometimes things happen to coffees between when we sample them and when they land at our roasting facility. We want our customers to trust that, if they buy a bag, a 12oz to go, a Kalita pour-over, a cap, or a white chocolate mocha that the coffee is immaculate.
Finally, the coffee lands in our cafes. Every drink has been thought out and tasted with as much attention as the coffees themselves.
We curate our menus with our customers in mind. Our annual menu offers a standard array of coffee drinks - espresso, cappuccinos, lattes, mochas, and brewed coffees. There’s a coffee milkshake on our menu because no one is born just naturally loving black coffee, and, let’s be honest, it’s delicious. We offer a quick batch brew - our Sugar Skull house blend, a coffee that represents the balance between traditional and modern flavors we aim to represent in our coffees like chocolate, candied walnuts, citrus. We love batch brew and proudly use a blend for it. Blends sometimes get a bad reputation because they end up being left over coffees or lower quality coffees than single origin offerings are.
For our Sugar Skull Blend, we only use coffees that we would offer as single origin offerings. We want to have a coffee both for our café menu and for our wholesale offerings that will maintain a consistent taste profile throughout the year even as green coffees change. We choose to batch brew it because we feel that offering this coffee as a pour over wouldn’t do it justice. A small coffee amount- 25 grams- would have different percentages of origin of beans, whereas a larger amount for batch brew- 150 grams- is more likely to have a more even percentage of origin of beans. This coffee serves us well. Customers can count on a consistent flavor and consistent price as well as a short service time.
We Are Onyx
Our seasonal menu rounds out our café offerings and details our single origin coffees that we serve in manual brew methods as well as a selection of fun, culinary inspired drinks. The purpose of this menu is to get customers to think about all the things that coffee can be. Currently on our menu is the coffee phosphate - a refreshing iced drink made with a traditional espresso, vanilla, acid phosphate, orange extract, cream, and soda water. We also offer a drink that has a sidecar pastry, marshmallow, or something tactile that adds to the drink. We want our customers to view coffee as more than a drink. Our seasonal menu is designed to entice regulars out of their normal drink patterns to try something that is visually stunning and also tastes great. It’s important that people are consistently engaged in active conversation with us about coffee, not just how it’s grown and processed, but how it should be viewed as an artistic process that aims to capture all of the senses and provide enjoyment for everyone.
The best business practice that Onyx Coffee Lab has and strives to continue is to be an owner-driven business. The difference between an owner run café, restaurant, retail shop, and so on is almost always evident in customer service, quality of product and atmosphere. It’s no easy task to translate passion for coffee into a well-run business. We think it’s a carefully constructed balance of demand for excellence, passion, heart, and recognizing when we need someone to step into a leadership role.
Being an owner-driven business doesn’t mean “Jon and Andrea do everything.” It means we oversee the quality and scope of every aspect of our business. It means that we recognize when we need to create management and leadership jobs. It means that we work to cultivate an environment where our staff can grow, learn and contribute. It means having a hard working management team in the stores keeping up with drink quality, customer relationships, and café atmosphere.
We think that recognizing when an employee is passionate and committed means putting them in a position where their talents can be used in the best way. This not only helps our business, but it allows individuals to thrive. We hope to create career jobs for our employees. I remember when I, Andrea, started my first barista job almost 16 years ago. I loved it. I wanted to keep doing it, but it felt like there was not future in coffee. Clearly things have turned out well for me, and I want that experience to continue for young baristas. We have helped several of our employees start their own shops. We meet with shop owners and baristas traveling through and talk openly with them about coffee, about our business, about industry issues. We know that if we continue to push forward, loving what we do, striving for excellence, that staff and customers fall in behind us. The magic of what we do is in the people, from the person growing and picking the coffee to the individual bringing the coffee to us, from the roaster and the cupping table into the hands of our customers, from the cup over which business deals are struck, over which people make up, with which so many wake up in the morning or that accompany them through long nights. Without all of those hands, we are nothing, and we are there over each step in the process, demanding, sipping, loving, encouraging, instructing. We are Onyx Coffee Lab.