by Andrea Johnson
It’s a typical Tuesday afternoon in Onyx Coffee Lab. Two students from Har-Ber High School down the street converse behind an open laptop. A man leans over a textbook at another table, studying anatomical sketches. A couple of women lounge and chat on a sofa.
At some point, they each went to the counter to order a drink, but none seemed to notice the small, wooden plaque a few feet away from the iPad cash register that reads “2017 UNITED STATES ROASTING CHAMPIONSHIP.” The title belongs officially to Onyx’s Mark Michaelson who won the championship, but it represents just one of many accolades the Onyx team has claimed over the years. They placed in the top five for the national roaster and barista competitions the last two years and are again vying for a world title.
Few customers know or care much about the awards, says Elika Liftee, Onyx assistant trainer and competitive roaster. When his friends learn about the competitive nature of his job, they’re surprised, he says.
“You walk into Onyx, and you’re just a regular [customer]. You know, you get your Onyx Delight, your mocha or black cup of coffee, and you don’t have to know everything that we do to have a good experience,” Liftee says. “Once you start exploring that, it sort of opens up a new world and a bigger understanding of what the industry entails.”
Specialty coffee shops are a rarity in Arkansas, which is part of why co-owners Andrea and Jon Allen decided to plant Onyx in Northwest Arkansas in 2012, Jon Allen says. The coffee industry is less saturated in this area, leaving room for them to build their brand.
Some Onyx employees are trained competitors trying to meet up to the expectation set by the slogan on their coffee bags and black to-go cups: “Never Settle For Good Enough.” Their competition season begins with preliminary competitions in August, and if they make it that far, ends with the world competition in April, Andrea Allen says. During the months in between, they’re tasting coffees, brewing constantly for practice and experimenting with tools and methods like scientists in search of a better tonic.
“I love that there’s a constant challenge, which I don’t think you usually associate with a coffee shop,” Liftee says.
Besides what’s shared on their social media, most of the competition prep work takes place in the Onyx warehouse “cupping room.” It’s a small, humid room with a square panel missing from the ceiling and wooden walls lined with posters that look like they belong in a classroom: Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel, Coffee Family Tree and The Art of Aroma Perception in Coffee.ing equipment sits on one side of the room opposite a wooden table with eight or so short, white cups filled with coffee. Once the taste-testers line up the cups, a group assembles around the table with spoons. Ready, set, taste.
“It’s a little more citrus and tropical than the last,” one says to another as they move from cup to cup, slurping coffee from their spoons.
“Tastes a little woody to me.”
“Woody? I don’t think so…”
Coffee tastings in the cupping room is part of Liftee’s job, but knowing how to produce a specific taste is also criteria in the competition he’s preparing for early next year. He gets scored on his coffee’s flavor, aroma, aftertaste, acidity and other qualities. He also gets scored on his customer service, or the friendly and informative nature of his presentation.
In the 2017-18 season, Liftee was named Midwestern Preliminary Brewers Cup Champion in September 2017, placed 7th out of 36 in one of the two qualifying competitions and advanced to the national coffee brewers competition for the first time.
Liftee felt like a contestant on a cooking show you’d see on The Food Network. He explained his brewing decisions to judges wearing headsets, waited for their ruling, placed 15th out of 25 in the country and then returned to Arkansas. The results disappointed him, mainly because he had debuted a tool he and a colleague invented, and using it didn’t render a higher placement.
Less than a week after the national competition in March, he began practicing for the 2018-19 season. In August, Liftee won first place in the southern region Brewers Cup preliminary. He’s in the cupping room daily running through his routine to develop muscle memory for competition like a gymnast who practices their floor routine until it’s impossible to forget. Liftee brews about 30 cups a day for practice and continues to adjust his script.
Liftee assumes most customers don’t know about their competitive side because training takes place out of public view. When customers come into Onyx, they often want to grab a coffee and go, Liftee says, so baristas brew quickly and with less explanation than they would give a judge.
“I try to take the same approach [in the shop], the difference being I get a lot more one-on-one time with a judge who views my presentation,” Liftee says. “I don’t usually get to spend 10 minutes with a customer explaining where the coffee came from and everything I did to make it taste better for them.”
Coffees used in competitions are of slightly better quality than what baristas brew in Onyx coffee shops, but brewing methods are nearly identical, Andrea Allen says.
It doesn’t happen often, but about 1 in 50 customers ask about the process, so training baristas involves educating them on how to explain to a customer what goes into making their drink, Liftee says.
For Olivia Lisle, a sophomore at John Brown University in Siloam Springs, going to Onyx with her friend Brandon Greenlee, a freshman at the University of Arkansas, has become a tradition carried on since high school, she said. The baristas remember their favorite drinks and talk casually with them at the bar. It’s a homey and friendly atmosphere, Greenlee says.
Lisle prefers Onyx lattes over others, but Onyx’s black coffee doesn’t taste much different than the rest, she says. She’s heard that one of the employees has made it big and competed in a world competition, but the shop’s vibe and look keeps her coming back.
“It has that aesthetic people want to post about on Instagram,” Lisle says.
Fayetteville resident Ryan Masten, 38, goes to Onyx in Springdale because it’s closest to his workplace, he said. He thinks the coffee tastes fresh.
“It has a different finish,” he says.
Masten says he visited a coffee shop in Waco, Texas, and a barista associated him being from Fayetteville with the Onyx brand. When Onyx opened in 2012, the company started selling coffee outside of Arkansas in addition to operating local coffee shops.
Succeeding in competitions became a “huge part of Onyx’s growth” and increased awareness of the company, Andrea Allen said. Now about 30-40 percent of Onyx’s revenue comes from wholesale.
“Through these competitions, people outside of Arkansas and outside the U.S., really, know about Onyx,” says Marshall Moore, Onyx assistant roaster and green buyer. “I think we are able to be at those coffee shops and those wholesale accounts because of the competitions.”
Andrea Johnson is a journalism student at University of Arkansas. Read here portfolio here.
Images courtesy of Andrea Johnson