Ray: I’m Ray.

Kandace: I’m Kandace.

Ray: Welcome to Unpacking Coffee. This week…

Kandace: Onyx Coffee Lab from Arkansas.

Ray: They were founded in 2012, roasted in the Ozarks.

Kandace: John and Andrea, a couple, they’re known for, not only for their phenomenal coffee, but also just this radical transparency. Just like a ton of side projects.

Ray: So we sent our questions to Jon at source. Unfortunately there was some political unrest in Ethiopia so he had to sent back some videos on his cellphone. So while we are visiting source, it’s a little bit constrained.

What’s the best part about being an owner-driven business?

Onyx Coffee Lab Ozark Roasted

Jon: We are in Addis, Ethiopia. My name is Jon Allen. I’m the founder of Onyx Coffee Lab out of northwest Arkansas. I would say the best part about being an owner-driven business, is that we don’t really have to answer to anyone.

So while I’m here, Kenyan coffee is extremely expensive this year and we can immediately pull the trigger on really nice coffees without budgetary constraints or going through channels. And that allows us, in my opinion to get really some of the best coffees in the world.

Because it’s my wife and I, it means that we have to have clear lines of delineation.

We live and breath Onyx.

Never Settle for Good Enough

Myself, I am the coffee buying and the quality control, and then I do some design and conceptual. Look at how handsome he is. It’s so good. He’s got such a loud slurp. That’s how you know the coffee’s good.

And Andrea is all the operation. Essentially, she makes the company run well. She’s the one I answer to, when I spend all our money on green coffee.

You know, we get to try to hire people that are better than us at their jobs.

Onyx Coffee Lab packaging

Tell us about your branding and packaging.

Our brand name and our logo design really came from sort of an old style of tattoo art and a little bit of punk rock. Our branding does change a lot and I think honestly, our company changes a lot.

As we grow, we’re a company made of new individuals that become part of our culture and take on the culture and make it their own. As a company, we want to adapt not only to just us as owners but to everyone that’s involved.

So we work with an artist named Jeremy Teff. He works for a company call BLK BOX LABS. He is still our main designer and as a close friend of ours. We’ve also started encompassing our work from our own stuff since we want it to be about the coffee and we want the coffee to really speak even though we really like branding, we don’t have commit to some sort of recognition or equitable mark. We just want to let the coffee speak itself.

What does transparency mean to you?

This thing right here, is about 90% of sourcing. Sitting in the car with someone that’s cooler than you.

Kandace in Onyx gear

So right now we are cruising all throughout east Africa. There’s a crazy amount of coffee here.  So I’m here cupping at METAD Headquarters, which runs the Hambela Estate Coffee and the Buku macro lot that we releases.

The real idea about becoming fully transparent really came out of more frustrations on my part when I was learning to buy coffee.  There was no one we could talk to for any information on what the pricing structure should be like, what was paid before. Is there a correlation of price to what this coffee is scoring? Does the producer actually know what’s being paid?

And all things, out of the frustrations came an idea just to start to begin to publish all that information, not only for our own customer’s information, but also as a reference guide to other producers that work with us. So the other reason for the transparency is also that we are very proud of the coffees we’re bringing in, and not just what they mean to us and what they cup but what we pay for them, the people we work.

More about Royal Coffee on Episode 037 of Unpacking Coffee

You know, there’s a lot of great people in the field of exporting and importing and we want to give credit where credit’s due, and also these people become our friends and our family.
And so if we buy this coffee here from Hambela today, and we start to work out the contracts then METAD might export it and Royal Coffee might bring it in for us, into the states. And all those companies should be represented on that lot.

Onyx Coffee Lab Terroir chocolate bar

Tell us about the Terroir project.

So Terroir was really a side project that was sort of born out of traveling around central America. And in 2016, when I really began to notice how many producers were pulling out their coffee trees at lower elevations on their farm or the mountains, due to either diversifying their crops or climate change. They were no longer able to grow specialty at this lower altitudes.

One was just wanting to work with these producers on all their different agricultural products and to kind of figure out a way that we could do that and actually succeed with it to create some kind of sustainable revenue.

And the other is really more of a sensory exploration of, do these different products … You know we sort of relate to each other especially cacao and coffee and sugar cane, maybe. With the same organic acids and the sensory components come through in the final product to create these really powerful chocolate bars.

Our work around Terroir is mainly around complexity and so Zane took this kind of mystical illuminati feel and really did just the must amazing geometric line work and we were all really, really excited about it.

I think the word that kept popping up throughout the entire project was just complexity. You know flavor, visually, a complex market and trying to actually get the product made. Complexity has been the story from the beginning for Terroir Chocolate and I think will probably always be that way.

That’s a Wrap

Ray: We spoke a little about the packaging. They fill it with design and they keep it, keep the colors black and white with just like kind of gold or yellow accents. The packing is just really fun. There’s a lot of layers to it. There’s these cool skulls. Onyx Coffee Lab of Arkansas.

Onyx hat