Get to Know Onyx Coffee Lab

Get to Know Onyx Coffee Lab

Mixing science with art.
by Team Trade | June 06, 2019

Founded by husband-and-wife duo Jon and Andrea Allen in 2012, Arkansas' own Onyx Coffee Lab goes above and beyond to explore the intersection of art and science.

Why did you choose the name Onyx?

The name Onyx was born out of a brainstorming session we had many years ago. It felt like a name that was easy to say, easy to recognize, and lent itself to many design elements. The onyx stone is the only translucent precious stone which allows light to shine through it. As a company, we are as transparent as we possibly can be and actively trying to improve the industry. Our market has always been the coffee industry itself.

What’s your favorite way to enjoy cold brew?

Our favorite thing about cold brew is that it’s so versatile. You can enjoy it by itself or with milk. We like to use cold brew as an ingredient in our signature drinks, like our Cold Brew & Tonic, which is made with a one to two ratio of cold brew to tonic (and a squeeze of lime if you’re feeling adventurous!)

What’s the difference between a coffee lab and roaster?

We originally called ourselves a coffee lab because we fully embrace the intersection of art and science throughout the entire coffee chain — including sourcing all kinds of coffees which feature different processing methods, roasting, and brewing in the café. And we want our customers to see that hard work and experimentation that permeates our shops. We also do quite a bit of consulting for cafés, producers, importers, roasters, etc., so we think "Coffee Lab" encompasses more of what we do.

Tell us about your team.

“We absolutely have the best team in coffee. Everywhere you look at Onyx— from the roasters to trainers to baristas — we are chock-full of talent, dedication, and hard work. Our people make us what we are.”

How does the competitive spirit influence Onyx?

Well, we are always competing with ourselves. Every year we want our coffees to be better than the previous year. We’re constantly pushing ourselves. Recently we added a color sorter post-roast to pull out any coffee that isn’t uniform (like underripe or overripe beans), which ups the quality that goes into each bag. Our feeling is that if we aren’t evolving, we’re going backward, and you see that throughout our business and coffees.

What do you look for when sourcing coffees?

When sourcing coffees (which is literally all the time) we have mainly one thing we are looking for: cup quality. We also look at price, variety, country, process, but not until the quality is determined to meet our standard. This is foundational to who we are and sets the groundwork for everything else we do. It means we don’t buy blenders or cheaper coffees to cut our signature blends — coffees that score an 86 or above is what we buy. We only purchase coffee we think would work as a single origin release and then recreate our blends every few months using those coffees. This allows us to recreate a flavor profile of a blend with fresh, 86 and above scoring, single origin coffees year round.

Seventy percent of what we buy is ‘Relationship Coffee,’ a mark we created for ourselves to explain how we buy coffee when we visit countries of origin. The other 30 percent we leave as a hole in our offerings so that when we find a coffee from an importer, exporter, cooperative, etc., we have the power to purchase it straight away. This breakdown is integral to our relationships with producers, while keeping an open mind and staying honest to the fact that we will buy anything that cups at the highest level.

So when we say ‘Relationship Coffee’ here is what we are saying:

  • We visited the farm or cupping lab and listened to the producer/agronomist or the head cooperative/association to ascertain better knowledge about the culture and practices.
  • We cupped the coffee, and it scored to our industry-high standards, 86+.
  • We do not buy futures or multiple harvests to ensure that what we cupped for that year is what we serve.
  • We do not ask for exclusivity from producers, binding their options.
  • We pay what the coffee is worth. This always is at least double Fair Trade minimum due to the quality we buy, and many times it is three to ten times the amount.
  • We do not finance any coffee. Cash flow is just as important as the final price. Coffee is paid in full upon delivery, and we pay a percentage up front upon contracting.
  • We are completely transparent from price per pound, to logistics, to cupping score, to who we work with in buying and shipping coffee.
  • We work to set premiums after a contracted price to incentivize quality and community building. This can mean paying .10 to 25 cents extra per pound, or supporting community projects such as school supplies for the growing village, sports jerseys, and vented chimneys for kitchen fires.

Does your new space really have a slide?

We most certainly have a slide at our HQ. Because fun, that’s why!

How has your community shaped your business?

The coffee community is continuously evolving, and the strength of baristas and roasters across the country constantly inspires us. This community has highly influenced us. Much of our transparency model was born out of our interactions with it: being told that certain green coffee information wasn’t available, that you can’t buy a coffee a certain way, that you can’t pay high prices for coffee and make it, that you can’t fully publish data.

Where do you see Onyx in the next five years?

We want to continue to push the industry and ourselves forward by increasing our sourcing standards and innovating throughout the process of buying green, roasting, brewing, and serving customers. We hope our customers continue to enjoy beautiful cups of black coffee over breakfast, meetings, dates, and any occasion that calls for something intentional.

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