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.
A mural at the new Onyx Bentonville location / Courtesy photo
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).