The vibrant enclave of Northwest Arkansas plays a geographically central role in the States, increasingly also acting as a center of gravity for specialty coffee. Onyx Coffee Lab are playing a role in this, with barista Amber Brown a pillar at their busy Bentonville venue. In this interview, Amber outlines a background in coffee and deep approach to professional development that goes beyond the typical coffee reading.
When did you start your career in coffee and how did you come across the industry?
I actually started at Starbucks more than 10 years ago. A couple of my friends worked for the company and loved it, so I jumped in. I have a weird passion for combining quality with efficiency, and that lead to me becoming a barista trainer there. It was a good gateway.
What's the status of specialty coffee in Northwest Arkansas?
Northwest Arkansas is a strange and mostly wonderful bubble for a lot of burgeoning industries. The Fortune 500 companies that have home bases here have brought people in from all over the world, and those people appreciate quality. It’s a dynamic I think we see in a lot of big cities between the wealthy and the people who serve the wealthy. But Onyx is, literally, the best of the best. Many of the people who live here don’t realize how lucky they are.
What types of people are suited to working in coffee?
One of the things I think is really cool about the coffee industry is that there’s literally something in it for everyone. From the farmers and producers who are passionate about agriculture to the scientists finding new ways to process the beans and the fruit. The foodies who find new and exciting ways to mix and present coffee beverages. The trainers who have a passion for spreading their knowledge. The artists and marketers and photographers and videographers and social media people who collaborate to promote companies and products. And all the people in between finding their niche. My favorite thing about coffee is that it puts me in front of so many people. People are my passion, and I get to give hundreds of people a small reason to be happy over and over and over every single day. You can be just about anyone and find a place where you fit within the coffee industry.
If someone is new to coffee and looking to start out, what would you recommend they start with?
My boyfriend is a chef and he drinks black coffee, but when he goes to a new coffee shop, he likes to try the vanilla latte first. That makes sense to me. If you’re in the right place, a vanilla latte is simple and balanced and friendly. And if you want to work your way into black coffee, you can subtract elements until you end up with black coffee, and from there, move into the nuances of the different regions and the tasting notes they’re known for. I love a good natural Ethiopian, but lately Onyx is bringing in some pretty spectacular anaerobics from Central and South America. I love watching people evolve from latte drinkers to black coffee lovers.
Are there some central blog posts or websites that you go to gain more knowledge, develop further skills?
Well, for me, coffee is about more than just coffee. For me, coffee is about people. Coffee is an opportunity to bring a small joy to someone’s life. Coffee is a vehicle for me to be able to connect with other humans. So I like to feed my soul with knowledge about how to share joy and how to connect with people. I read Elizabeth Gilbert. I read Brené Brown. I listen to meditation podcasts. I listen to music. I go to therapy. I try to be my whole authentic self so I can bring my whole authentic self to work with me every day. As for the coffee, I rely on Onyx to make sure I’m delivering the best quality so I don’t have to worry about that part of the process, because that’s just not my strong suit. Onyx has cultivated a team of people who are the best of the best. Our website onyxcoffeelab.com offers not only the best coffee and products, but also tutorials. And Onyx believes in transparency, meaning we tell our patrons how much we spend on the coffee we’re selling to them, and what we put our profit into bringing to them next.
What's next for your career? What's on the horizon and what goals do you have for the coming three years?
What’s next for me? That’s a good question. Every six months, I get the same question from my leadership team. Covid threw a wrench in my biggest goal, which is to go on a sourcing trip with Onyx. So right now, that’s my biggest and most exciting goal. I want to meet some of the people behind the entire seed-to-cup process. There are hundreds of hands that go into every single cup of coffee we serve with a smile. I want the great honor of meeting some of the people who make sure I get to do that with confidence— knowing I’m giving them the best, because they put their whole heart into their part of the coffee process just like I do.
Find Onyx Coffee Lab on Instagram at @onyxcoffeelab, and in Rogers and Bentonville for when you’re in Northwest Arkansas.