Andrea and Jon Allen own Onyx Coffee Labs in Northwest Arkansas

Onyx Coffee Labs puts its mission front and center on their sleek website. “…seeking quality, truth and accountability in coffee. We journey to find the finest and most unique coffees in the world.”

Their specialty coffee is blended using incredible coffee varietals from around the world but they make it very clear that ethical sourcing is just as important as bean quality. Since winning the US barista championships in 2020, Andrea says their business has seen a huge spike in e-commerce and many articles have been published about how their business stayed afloat during the pandemic.

I wanted to give her a break from the pandemic talk and focus more on the beans, and discover what got her excited when thinking about the future of the coffee industry, and she didn’t disappoint. Their approach to coffee sourcing, roasting, and brewing are unique and they are a great model for the industry.

DB: How does Onyx hook coffee drinkers? How do you attract all types of people to Onyx?

We wanted to meet people at their level of coffee first. There’s kind of a fine line between educating someone and giving them information and then talking down to them.

We value that relationship of a customer seeking product first and establishing a sense of trust between producer and consumer.

When we first became a company, we would do three tastings a week to get people to taste the differences between espresso, different brewing methods, try different coffees without having to buy a whole bag, etc.

Through those experiences and that relationship between producer and consumer, we really started to gain traction.

DB: What brewing method would you recommend for someone starting out brewing your specialty coffee?

If someone is interested in doing a pour-over at home, a Chemex or a Kalita pour-over device is really great. Both are easy to use and pretty forgiving. I think if the person is not interested in doing a pour-over, having a coffee machine that meets the STA brewing standards. That basically means a machine that will heat water above 195 degrees.

DB: How much of your search for the next bean or brew is focused on good agricultural practices?

That’s interesting. So this is going to be the opposite of what you might expect me to say but we actually don’t really evaluate agriculture. We only evaluate bean quality. Almost always, high-quality beans and good agriculture go hand in hand.

But you can have good agriculture and still end up with a not great coffee. As you know, weather patterns, disease in plants, etc can impact the flavor of the bean.

There’s also processing. It goes from being a cherry to being a grain stable seed and then gets shipped across the world so there are a lot of steps that can go wrong even with great agricultural practices. You can do everything correctly but if something goes wrong during the fermentation process, you could get a not great cup of coffee… It’s very rare that you will find a good coffee that isn’t sourced from a great agricultural system.

DB: What brought you to C. Eugenoides?

In Andrea’s winning cups, she used a new species of coffee bean that is gaining popularity, Coffea Eugenoides, along with a great Geisha variety. Neither Geisha and Eugenoides are high yielding plants but the flavor profile of the beans are incredibly unique which can give an edge during competition.

We’re really interested in anything new going on with coffee. We did cup it (Eugenoides) the previous year but personally, it isn’t a super balanced coffee. It’s a very sweet coffee with almost no acidity. We try to really balance the type of coffee we are putting out that our customers can expect from us. For someone who doesn’t know a ton about coffee or the flavor potential of coffee, if they were to buy Eugenoides, it would be completely wild for them. When I am drinking it, I don’t drink a ton of it because it is so sweet and so special.

Andrea also made an interesting point about being a competition barista. The competition isn’t simply about creating the best cup of coffee. There are points awarded for presentation, giving accurate flavor notes of the coffee, and methodology. Check out the judge’s score sheets here.

We really got interested in it (Eugenoides) for competition because so much of the competition is scored in terms of the judges agreeing with and having the same flavor experience you are describing.

It can be easily described, it’s also really good, and it creates a really interesting flavor profile compared to what’s out there. I ended up layering it with (Geisha), a bright floral and acidic flavor and it created the most incredible espresso flavor. The sweet super-dense body of Eugenoides and the delicate bright floral citric nature of Geisha was really incredible.

We also create our menus and competition drinks with the idea that coffee is an ingredient and not just it’s own beverage. That’s why Eugenoides works so great for us because it’s so different from what people view coffee as normally. It really lends itself to being an ingredient.

DB: Could you elaborate on that a bit? What do you mean by “coffee as an ingredient?”

So most people think of coffee as just a beverage. I’m going to get a coffee. Maybe a black coffee and maybe tweak it with cream or sugar. Or I’m getting a coffee and they’re getting a mocha.

In those iterations of drinks, coffee is the main player. We approach coffee as an ingredient. We take coffee and use it as a part of a bigger picture. For example, we have a drink right now called ‘The FOMO’ which is more like a cocktail. It has espresso in it but it has vanilla, water, shaken coconut cream, with a dusting of chocolate over the top.

Like a cocktail with coffee instead of booze. I wouldn’t call the FOMO a coffee. Coffee is just an ingredient in the coffee.

Photo from Onyx Facebook

DB: I saw your passion fruit specialty drink you made in the competition. Something kind of like that?

Yeah, so that was a very conceptual version of what I just discussed. Instead of using Eugenoides coffee alone, I used ingredients that highlighted the flavor profile of Eugenoides and combined that with espresso that was made just from the Geisha. When I did the espresso course, I used part Geisha, part Eugenoides which made one espresso experience. For the signature drink, it was basically the same point of view but instead of using Eugenoides, I used the ingredients of the Eugenioides flavor profile and the Geisha was the entirety of the espresso.

DB: When you look at the “craft” industry, craft beer, craft chocolate, etc, there is a tendency to include crazy ingredients. Let’s throw pretzels in a chocolate bar, let’s put a milkshake in a beer, etc. Do you think the craft coffee realm will focus on the bean or these signature drinks like you’re talking about?

I think the coffee industry is such a broad thing. There’s this huge supply chain from producers to roasters so I think the next phase of coffee will include both. I think there will continue to be people elevating the green bean production and roasting but also people that take coffee to the next level. Coffee as part of a culinary experience.

There are very few places that do both really well. You’ll see great restaurants in America but they very rarely have great coffee. You also see places that have great coffee very rarely have the same level of food. I really think with the pandemic shifting how every American see’s food and beverage, we’ll see an emergence of people doing both. The really elevated culinary point of view but in a more casual cafe-style setting. I don’t really know where fine dining is going after the pandemic. I think coffee and food will evolve together hopefully.

DB: Besides buying expensive coffee, are there any other practices from a consumer standpoint to help make sure the growers are treated fairly?

“I also would add that coffee drinkers should ask more questions. Great coffee does cost more but do all high-priced coffees correlate to high quality beans? No.

This happens with food too. A high priced meal doesn’t always equate to the highest quality meal. A meal could be put together with great presentation or good packaging and could still not be great. It takes a coffee professional to navigate through that.

I would say asking your roaster questions and them being transparent about everything is most important. Pricing, name of the producer, how they got it there, what their margin is, etc. Roasters should be willing and able to answer those questions. With the increasing prices of coffee, you still need to watch out for a roasters profit margin.

There can be a big disparity between what a coffee grower sells it for and what the roaster sells it for even in the craft world. It’s rare to see that transparency but it shouldn’t be. I think if coffee consumers asked a few more questions about that side of the industry, it would help with the ethics of coffee production tremendously.

They don’t need to know every scientific process involved with coffee but knowing these few things about this process will require companies to relay this information.

DB: I was just talking about this with a chocolate producer. Small batch chocolate producers usually pride themselves on their transparency whereas these larger industrialized chocolate producers keep their sourcing information classified a lot of times or simply don’t know where their cacao is coming from.

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DB: Producers working together. That sounds pretty contradictory to the free market enterprise we are used to. We are trained to think proprietary knowledge should be hush hush and keep it to yourself.

I read in another article, you guys are training a bunch of people to be baristas, a few of your former employees have opened up coffee shops and you still remain close with them. Do you think we all rise together? Do you think that’s the road to making this craft coffee movement really permeate?

I do. I really do. I fully agree with that. Especially when you think about an industry that is so widespread like coffee. Take Starbucks as an example. They have the most shops of any coffee company I know.

They have so many stores but do we expect every person to buy their coffee from Starbucks? No. When you talk about Onyx, we can only serve coffee to people that walk in our door. We are only in Northwest Arkansas. How much of the market would we ever expect to control? I would say a very small part of it so when we are talking about sharing knowledge, why would it ever hurt us to share knowledge with someone.

It’s no secret if you use higher quality practices of producing food, you tend to get good food. It’s not just the ingredients, though. It’s how you prepare them, how you serve them, it’s how people feel and experience what you’re doing.

I think that’s what sets us apart. Every shop feels different and each shop has a different point of view when it comes to service. Some people love going to Starbucks and that’s their thing and that’s what they love and I think that’s great. Some people come to us because that’s where they feel comfortable and they like our coffee. Both types of places should be able to coexist and it all helps with the rise of coffee.

“For us, it’s not about having proprietary knowledge and keeping it a secret. I can go and tell someone exactly how I make my cup of coffee but when that person makes the coffee, they will instill their own nuances and won’t replicate exactly what I do. They might do better or worse but they likely won’t do the same. We don’t have any crazy secrets. We are just dedicated to doing it as great as we can and doing it our way. That transfer of knowledge doesn’t hurt us. It only helps other people in the industry.”

Greed and insecurity is the only reason you would hide these things. You would only hide it because you want more for yourself or you’re afraid someone will tell you’re not doing it right. There’s more coffee out there that we could never buy, roast, or sell so why would it ever benefit us to try and keep it to ourselves?

After talking with Andrea, I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between her mission and that of the farm-to-table movement. Along with incredible ingredients, there is a push to tell a story and push the boundaries of the modern food/coffee industry. In order to pave the way for the next era of food and coffee, a deep focus on sourcing needs to occur.

Although the coffee industry is pushing for ethical production and sourcing, human rights issues are still very prevalent in the coffee, cacao, and sugar industries. When industrial coffee producers can’t trace the origin of their beans or refuse to disclose this information, we have a problem. Andrea says transparency should be universal for coffee roasters large and small. When consumers begin to demand this information, only then will ethical sourcing truly be a focal point. In an interview with Edible Memphis, when asked how consumers can make an impact, Jon brought up a simple but extraordinarily important point.

Buy expensive coffee- at least double digits

A luxury crop grown thousands of miles away shouldn’t be cheap. If it’s cheap, the farmer is likely the one suffering.

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