2015 is starting out strong for Northwest Arkansas’ Onyx Coffee Lab. In January, the company was named one of the winners of the Good Food Awards, the state’s first. Last week, Onyx sent two representatives to Long Beach for the United States Coffee Championships—co-owner Andrea Allen competed in the Barista Championship thanks to her second place finish in the South Central Regional, and Dylan Siemens competed in the Latte Art Championship. Building this impressive of a resume over such a short period of time is certainly going to turn some heads, especially when the shop doing it is borne of the non-metropolitan south, a region not typically thought to be the home of progressive coffee scenes. But to those of us in the south, it's no surprise. Onyx has been building a reputation as one of coffee's more forward-thinking southern shops/roasters for some time now. So, Valentine’s Day weekend (sorry, wife) seemed like the best time to make a trip up to Fayetteville and officially introduce the world to a shop that people in the south, and in the know, have been in love with for some time now.
The drive to Fayetteville from our home in Texas truly presents Northwest Arkansas. The route involves single-lane, street light-less roads carving through the Ozarks' rolling hills, surrounded on all sides by dense thickets of leafless oaks, punctuated by evergreen needles from the occasional pine. It is rural and singularly beautiful. And yet is only two miles from the University of Arkansas and its yearly replenishing 25,000 person student body of hip twenty-somethings—about one third of Fayetteville’s total population, and around 6% of the total population of the quad-country region of Fayetteville, Springdale, Rogers, and Bentonville. Northwest Arkansas is a compendium of different worlds, where modern influence exists within pastoral landscapes, not attempting to supplant its surroundings but instead commingle with them.
The physical structure of Onyx embodies this confluence: it is a shop that feels both embedded in and yet somehow distinct from its environment. Set in the corner spot in a retail strip overlooking a lumber yard, the exterior of Onyx is matte black, contrasting the off-white of the rest of the storefronts, giving a distinct sense of otherness. Approaching from the south or east, the ebony building looks to be a stand-alone structure; it isn’t until pulling around to the westward-facing entrance that it's clear Onyx is part of a larger complex.
Inside, the shop is modern but not rigid, inviting but not rustic. The matte black of the exterior continues on the long southern wall, standing in contrast to the white tile from its northern counterpart behind the coffee bar. In the far corner of the building, a pastiche of various shapes and sizes of scrap wood cover the walls, contributing to the overall warmth of the interior. Owner Jon Allen says, “the Fayetteville spot is ‘Ozark Modern,’ so lots of clean straight lines mixed with a wide range of colored hardwoods. We like textures—wood, tile, concrete—so we tried to keep things minimal but then have the walls and floors change the feel.”
The shop is bustling with activity on this early Valentine’s Day morning—older men reading newspapers, a young couple talking over lattes, a 20-something writing/drawing into a Moleskine notebook, a grad student studying—all the things people do at a neighborhood haunt, adding to Onyx’s overall approachability and lack of pretense—important for striking the balance between coffee as high art and beverage of the everyman.
Perhaps the best personification of this equilibrium is seen in the actions of the owners, husband and wife, Jon and Andrea Allen, during this busy morning time. While Jon is in the back of the shop giving a coffee class to a group of customers, Andrea is at a table near the entrance, literally balancing tending to their 8 month old baby, River, and tasting the coffee she will be taking to the USBC, a naturally processed Gesha from Guatemala, the same coffee that won the Good Food Awards.
Behind the coffee bar, though, modernity and innovation rule, as Onyx utilizes some of the more design-forward coffee gear on the market today. Rising center mast out of the ash and hickory wood counter are two Modbar espresso systems, flanked on both sides by Modbar steam modules. Putting the versatility of the Modbar to the test, Onyx regularly offers four different espressos at any given time. During my visit, a set of Mahlkönig K30 grinder triplets—a single and two twin versions (paternal triplets) —positioned along the back bar were grinding Onyx's Ozark Copper blend, Julio Caturra from Guatemala, Red Queen blend (an homage to more traditional European roasts), and a Swiss-Water-decaffeinated Costa Rica.
Moving further down the bar is the pour-over station, where the primary brew methods are Kalita Wave and Clever Dripper. Onyx continues its foray into gear geekdom with its use of Acaia scales, the beautifully minimal, ultra-responsive, Sprudgie-winning scale that is all the buzz amongst coffee shops and home users alike. As with the espresso program, Onyx has a robust offering list for their brewed coffee, keeping four different coffees in the row of Baratza Fortes to the left of the pour over station—Ethiopia Yirgacheffe Kochere, Kenya Ndaroini, Colombia La Palma Jose Reyes Lot #25, and Colombia La Esperanza Bourbon.
Along the back bar behind the pour over station are two recently installed black Curtis Seraphim brewers, the sleek under-counter cousin of the Gold Cup. They are currently in the beta-testing phase at Onyx, but the plan is to pair them with the black Mahlkönig EK-43 grinder to their right and use them primarily for batch brewing.
Perhaps more interesting than hi-tech gadgetry or the lengthy coffee selections are the drinks Onyx creates with them. Along with non-coffee treats like apple ginger tea soda and blueberry rooibos kombucha, both made in-house, Onyx offers a seasonal list of “Barista Specials”: concoctions meant to present their coffees in new and fun ways. There’s a Coffee Old Fashioned, made with Guatemela Zapote cold brew aged in rum barrels, finished off with Demerara sugar, chocolate bitters, and a maraschino cherry, and served over a large ice cube in an Onyx branded tumbler.
There’s the Pecan Panna, an espresso drink with muddled pecans, toffee, and topped off with cardamom whipped cream. And as a Valentine's Day special, there was a cappuccino made with strawberry milk, served in an Onyx sugar skull-logoed champagne flute with a dark chocolate rim and strawberry garnish. “The purpose behind the drinks is to put coffee in the consumer's mind as a culinary item, not just a drug or simple beverage,” Jon Allen tells me. “We want to produce visually stunning or complex sensory experiences that elevate what specialty coffee is inherently trying to do. Also, it’s a lot of fun.”
Zac Cadwalader is a Sprudge.com staff writer based in Dallas. Read more Zac Cadwalader on Sprudge.
Photos by Gareth Patterson for Sprudge.com