The rhythmic movement around the table, the clanking of the spoons. Between wood-paneled walls the coffee is tasted, one after another. The brew is slurped loudly and rolled across the palate. Once the aromatic and flavor profiles are captured, the excess liquid is deposited into spittoons for fear of caffeine overload. There is, after all, a lot of coffee to sample.
This ceremony – known as “cupping” – leads to copious notes about the quality of the beans and how close the roasters came to meeting their targets. Adjustments are made to subsequent roasts, leading to the best cup of coffee possible.
This is the daily ritual for Jon Allen, co-owner and coffee commandeer of Onyx Coffee Lab. Along with wife and business partner Andrea Allen he is – nearly four years after starting the business – seeing things come together.
Business is booming, and recognition is coming from every direction it seems. Imbibe Magazine, for example, recently named Onyx its 2016 Coffee Bar of the Year.
Onyx was also recognized in the coffee category of the Good Foods Awards, which focuses on responsible production and “superior taste.”
This kind of praise is especially noteworthy because it’s for a young coffee business located somewhere other than the east or west coasts.
More than anything, it speaks to the hard work of the Allens – and of the many Onyx employees who shed blood, sweat, and tears to brew the perfect cup of coffee for their customers.
Doing it different and growing like crazy
When the former Arsaga’s in Springdale was rebranded as Onyx Coffee Lab, the Allens were roasting around 80 pounds of coffee in the back of the shop each week.
The wholesale side of the business grew, with interest coming from both inside and outside the state of Arkansas.
Buyers were drawn to the special handling and light touch Onyx placed on the beans. The Allens made trips to coffee-growing countries to source the beans directly, and once back in Arkansas, they offered customers opportunities to learn about their small-batch coffee through public cupping.
“What Jon did was brilliant,” said head roaster, Mark Michaelson. “He brought our customers on a journey to taste our coffees, and to look at these different flavor profiles that are much lighter than the rest.”
Onyx is indeed one of the lightest roasters in the region.
While most coffee is known for its bold, bitter attributes (think Sumatra or French Roast), Onyx coffee possesses a delicate flavor that emphasizes much subtler characteristics.
Floral, citrus, and berry are rarely descriptors of coffee bought for a dollar at the corner convenience store. But it’s these types of sensory notes – among others – that make Onyx different.
The roastery was moved from the back of the Springdale lab to a larger warehouse space a few years ago. The building lacks any distinguishing markings and blends effortlessly into a sea of light industrial uses. Small offices and a space for training flank the roasting and storage areas. Coffee beans are maintained by lot in temperature and humidity-controlled rooms, and other wholesale inventories are stacked onto metal shelves that reach toward the ceiling of the warehouse.
The workhorses behind Onyx’s premium small-batch coffees are 40kg and 12kg drum roasters. A new 70kg version with custom Onyx graphics will arrive soon, allowing for large batches of the most popular roasts (such as Sugar Skull Blend).
Roasting in a highly variable environment like Northwest Arkansas presents a unique challenge. One day it’s 30 degrees, the next day it might be in the 70s.
“This is a mix of science of art,” said Jon Allen. “There’s no technological way of getting the internal bean temperature inside the roasting drum. It just isn’t possible, so a little bit is based on sight and smell.”
Adjustments to the roasting temperatures are continually made based on environmental conditions. This is where the quality assurance process known as cupping plays a vital role in the final outcome of the coffee.
In addition to its roasting operation, Onyx supplies coffee shops with paper products, syrups, and other supplies.
“Almost every independent shop in a 60-mile radius buys from us,” said Jon Allen. “Even if they’re considered a competitor. We don’t really look at it like that, so it works out.”
Production is now 3,500 pounds of coffee per week, and Onyx beans are available at independent cafes throughout the United States.
Competing on a national level
Andrea Allen and Onyx barista trainer Dylan Siemens recently participated in the U.S. Coffee Championships qualifying event in Kansas City. It wasn’t either coffee pro’s first time to compete.
“Andrea has been competing for a while,” said husband Jon Allen. “She made it to nationals last year.”
Both Siemens (who competed in the brewers portion of the program and placed 7th) and Andrea Allen (16th in the barista competition) advanced to the 2016 finals in Atlanta this April.
For Onyx Coffee Lab, competing is important. During competition they are graded on roast quality, brewing prowess, and creativity in drink design. A good showing lends credence to the brand and helps grow the business.
“It’s sort of free advertising if you’re showing that you can roast and produce a coffee that is cupping to that level for the sensory judges,” said Jon Allen.
There’s also a sense of state pride when competing on the national stage. Onyx regularly goes toe-to-toe with roasters from more established coffee cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco.
“In a way, nothing brings me more pride than to win these coffee competitions,” said Allen. “The food and beverage scene is generally snobby in nature. I’ve explained that Arkansas is a state and not a city at least 500 times.”
Synergies with beer
Onyx focuses on coffee, but also enjoys a strong link to the percolating beer culture in Northwest Arkansas.
“It’s the same people,” explained Jon Allen. “There’s something very communal about coffee, and there’s something very communal about beer.”
True, many of Onyx’s customers are also spending their money on local beer. Any given morning you’ll find people at the Fayetteville lab who will later enjoy pints at neighborhood breweries. Nearby Fossil Cove Brewing Company is a brewery that shares customers with Onyx.
One of those customers happens to be Fossil Cove owner and brewmaster Ben Mills, who can often be spotted at Onyx picking up his morning coffee after setting the mash in his brewhouse less than a mile away. In fact, he’s so fond of Onyx he uses it in one of his seasonal brews – the curiously aromatic Coffee IPA.
Perhaps more famously, Onyx is an ingredient in one of Ozark Beer Company’s highest-rated beers. Onyx Coffee Stout is a staple at the brewery, and will reportedly be available in cans in the not-too-distant future. An Onyx version of the acclaimed Bourbon Double Cream Stout was available in short supply at the BDCS 2016 release party on Feb. 26.
The link between Onyx and Ozark is strong. The Allens were early investors in Ozark Beer Company, and the beer is prominently featured at the brand new Bentonville lab. Jon Allen joked that he should only carry Ozark because he’s technically double dipping on profits with the sale of each pint. One Fossil Cove tap joins six from Ozark as the only beers featured in Bentonville.
Onyx is proving that beer and coffee can not only co-exist, but also accentuate each other in a market primed to seek out both. So why not in the same place, or even in the same drink?
Mixing cool with ethical business practices
The typical day at each of the three labs starts early, with a constant stream of customers throughout the day. They’re attracted to Onyx because of the coffee, of course – but also because it’s a cool brand to associate with.
Pour-over coffee and seasonal drinks provide the fuel for work, study, and playful conversations. You’ll see people you know, as well as people you wish you knew. Doctors and lawyers wait in line behind creative types and students. University of Arkansas Athletic Director Jeff Long pops into the Gregg Street lab for a coffee every now and then.
Just as importantly, Onyx Coffee Lab is doing things the right way. Many coffee producers live in remote, third world conditions; and it’s not uncommon for lowball prices to be paid for what is a very labor- and resource-intensive commodity product.
Jon Allen said he is committed to paying a respectable amount for the coffee that Onyx sources from these underdeveloped regions of the coffee belt. Growers can then reap some of the benefits of the international interest in small lot coffee, and are better able to build a level of sustainability into their farming practices.
Some of this additional cost must of course be passed along to the customer. But Jon Allen hopes it will become more acceptable to the masses (and not just coffee diehards) in the future.
“The thought that coffee should be a dollar?” he asked, rhetorically. “I mean, if I told you any other product took 6 months to grow on a farm 20,000 miles away, was touched by 150 hands with machinery that cost $2 million…and it needs to be under a dollar? It sounds ridiculous.”
So far customers around here have been very open-minded about the added expense. For those into local and artisanal foods, it’s almost expected. Onyx certainly isn’t the first to charge a premium price for coffee in the area.
Northwest Arkansas has supported the Onyx brand to the point that continued growth is inevitable. Rumor has it a fourth Northwest Arkansas lab will open at some point soon, along with a larger roastery to keep up with wholesale demand.
The brand is also beginning to carry weight in the countries producing the raw material for the Allen’s passions.
“This year is the first year people really know who we are,” said Jon Allen.
Local devotion. National recognition. Respect on the international stage. Things seem to be coming together nicely for Onyx Coffee Lab.