The best cup of coffee, possibly, in the world is served in Bellingham, at the edge of town on a rehabilitated lot adjacent to derelict railroad tracks.
The words etched on the glass door read: Onyx Coffee Bar. And that is all you will notice of the shop’s exterior, if you notice it at all, blended into the ground floor of an apartment building.
You cannot drive by Onyx, because it is located on a path off limits to cars, nor can you notice its awning or signage because it has neither. Most who go there, many of them coffee or restaurant industry professionals, know of the place and seek it out. Those who stumble into it on the one day of the week it is open are likely confused by what they find inside.
If you have not consumed much coffee outside of the Northwest lately, or if you have been blissfully slurping dark-roast double-shots with foam on top, Onyx is something of a revelation, coffee as you’ve never tasted it. Theirs is brewed coffee and brewed coffee only, by hand in small batches, with no flourishes whatsoever.
Onyx represents what some have taken to call, for lack of a better term, the coffee industry’s third wave, a scattered confederacy of shops, buyers, roasters, equipment dealers and the fanatic coffee-drinkers who seek them out. The definition is neither explicit nor official, but the earmarks of the third wave are consistent.
Third-wave beans tend to be meticulously sourced, from the same region if not the same farm. Quality control is high. Roasters and growers often have direct relationships, which, as a side effect, put more profit in the pockets of coffee farmers, so much that it puts the concept of fair-trade to shame. (Fair trade merely puts a floor on wholesale green-coffee prices, but that price is usually very low; direct trade allows farmers to share in some of the retail profits.)
Third wave eschews coffee-culture conventions, most notably the habit of roasting coffee beans to a dark, oily finish.
“On first taste, it [lightly roasted coffee] can be disappointing to someone who likes a darker roast,” said Edwin Martinez, the owner of Onyx. Dark coffee tastes strong and intense, but “there is a big difference between strong and bold, and flavorful.”
If the first wave of coffee was Maxwell House (it was the best-selling coffee in the country for most of a century), and the second wave was Starbucks, the third wave is the next logical refinement of what has previously been a commodity product, sold by the ton, processed to indelicate uniformity.
The first wave was defined by volume, consistency and convenience, ground coffee in a can and instant coffee. The second wave was about consistency and volume too, but it also traded on notions of romance and culture, and distinguished a finer cup of coffee from an ordinary one. The second wave created the ritual of hanging out in coffee shops and invented the concept of a coffee beverage, which did wonders for corporate profits (inexpensive additives created huge mark-ups), but nothing to refine the palates of coffee drinkers. A Frappuccino is to coffee what Bartles & Jaymes is to wine.
“I love Starbucks; there is a place for it,” said Damon Yeutter, the barista at Canlis, which recently created a custom coffee menu (Martinez was a consultant) worthy of the restaurant’s gold-star brand. “If it wasn’t for Starbucks, we would not have all these caffeine addicts ... People in Seattle drink so much coffee, and it is so available, there’s a complacency here.”
The third wave turned the light on Seattle’s reputation as Coffeetown, U.S.A. Turns out, the rep is more about consumption and quantity than about quality.
The third wave is not geographically centered. The best purveyors come from all over: Oregon, California, North Carolina, Michigan, Canada. Seattle has a few great places — Milstead & Co. in Fremont is one such rare coffee shop — but no more (and perhaps fewer) than Portland, San Francisco, L.A., New York, Chicago. Or Bellingham.
Onyx, which is open only on Saturday, has no wi-fi, no music, no artwork, no cushy chairs, no condiment bar. Sweeteners, flavorings or dairy products are nowhere in the store. Neither are pastries or sandwiches. The store lacks an espresso machine and therefore does not serve shots, lattes, macchiatos, cappuccinos — or 'ccinos of any kind.
The lack of frills ensured that only serious coffee drinkers would patronize the place. The coffee bar is but a small part of Martinez’ business. Most of his income comes from selling green (processed but unroasted) coffee beans from Guatemala.
Martinez spends much of the harvest season there filling orders, leaving his right-hand-man Drew Fitchette in charge of the store most Saturdays. Fitchette, who is also a local musician, mans the three-stool bar, presiding over the small tasting menu of five different beans, roasted by small, regional roasters with which Onyx has a relationship.
If you are accustomed to mass-market specialty coffees, you will notice right away the coffee at Onyx is lightly roasted by comparison. Dark roasts are intense and consistent in flavor and therefore preferred by high-volume retailers. Roasting a bean longer removes more flavor variables. Light roasting allows the bean’s more complex flavor notes to survive. The coffee at Onyx tastes tart, floral, sweet and earthy rather than just smoky.
Fitchette grinds whole beans to order and brews all the coffee by hand, following a precise formula: two ounces of coffee per one fluid ounce of water (or 22 grams of coffee per 360 milliliters of water), heated to 205 degrees Fahrenheit, which produces an extraction ratio of 1.35 percent, the ratio of coffee solids to water. A cup is $3.50, a taste of three different coffeesis $9.
“I want people to leave with a positive experience,” said Fitchette. “When people come in I’m not going to beat you over the head with an education.”
If, though, an education is what you seek, there is plenty to learn here. FItchette likes to refer to the shop as the lab, which is what it resembles with its scales, fancy grinders, copper roasters, glassware and steel cups, much of which Onyx also sells. He is happy to take you through the brewing process, talk about the equipment or the beans.
“We get chefs and bartenders in here a lot,” Fitchette said. “They really nerd out when they see all the stuff we have.”
Coffee connoisseurs often draw comparisons between coffee and wine, pointing out that, like grapes, coffee is a fruit (and therefore should taste like a fruit), comes in different varieties, grows in different seasons and does well only in particular climates. Generally speaking, coffee grows between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, and at elevations of at least 3,000 feet.
When coffee experts taste coffee — they call it cupping — they slurp it the way sommeliers taste wine. They also talk about how coffee, like wine, posseses a terroir, an expression of flavor that is particular to the climate and geography the plant grew in.
Martinez said the flavor of his beans reflects the rain that falls on them, the amount of shade they receive, the nutrients in his soil, the humidity, even the wildlife that share the land. To protect the terroir, workers pick his beans by hand, dry them in the sun and process them manually.
Unlike wine, coffee is not a stable product. Green coffee beans can be stored before roasting, but only for eight to 12 months. Once roasted, beans retain their best qualities for only weeks, if not days.
Extracting the optimum flavor from an optimally roasted bean is also a fragile process, done best with precise measurements of weight, time and temperature, details that for years did not concern those who made or drank coffee.
While the first and second waves were driven by the ambitions of corporations, the third wave is driven mostly by the personal passions of small operators.
Fitchette was struck by inspiration in 2007 when he tasted his first pour-over coffee at Ritual Coffee Roasters in San Francisco, where he had traveled to perform. (Ritual is one of the Bay Area’s many custom-brew shops. Blue Bottle Coffee is probably the best known; it recently expanded its empire with several locations in New York City.)
“I wanted exactly what I had there,” Fitchette said of his dream cup of Kenyan. “So I needed to get one of those cones they used to make it.”
One of “those cones” was a Japanese-made, Hario V60, ceramic drip cone, which retails for about $20. Japan has a long tradition of meticulously hand-brewing coffee, an extension of its tea culture. For that reason, a lot of high-end coffee equipment is made there. Blue Bottle is filled with Japanese-made equipment.
In search of a set of three Hario cones, Fitchette eventually found Martinez who sold them (he still does). Fitchette shared his business plan — he and his friend Evan Bridges planned to sell hand-brewed coffee by the cup on the streets of Bellingham from a bicycle-pulled coffee cart –— which Martinez “instantly crushed,” Fichette said. The idea was impractical and doomed to fail, Martinez told Fichette. Instead, he offered to hire both friends. (Bridges worked for Martinez for several years before going to work for Extracto Coffee Roasters in Portland.)
Martinez was born in California — his mother is American — but grew up in Guatemala on his father’s family coffee farm. He attended college at Western Washington University where his maternal grandparents retired, and stuck around. He married a woman from Bellingham — they have three young children — where he set up Onyx about 10 years ago by aggressively handing out hundreds of samples of his family’s beans to roasters.
Before long, he sold all the beans from his family’s farm, so he started selling beans from other farmers in Guatemala. He now works with about a dozen coffee families, some of whom run several plots. He sells to about 50 roasters, two-thirds of whom are in North America. The rest are in Scandinavia, Australia and Japan.
Martinez is experimenting this year with an extreme, high-altitude crop of beans. Altitude is a good thing for coffee – to a point. The higher the elevation, the slower the plants grow and the sweeter the fruit. Too high, however, and coffee plants won’t produce at all. Usually, 5,500 feet is about as high as a grower can go. Martinez’ experimental lot is at 6,000 feet. Last year, the bushes hardly produced any fruit. He increased their output with aggressive pruning unheard of in coffee cultivation, practically cutting them to a stump.
Martinez can afford to fail because the Canlis brothers, Mark and Brian, who are openly in thrall of him, agreed to buy the batch of high-altitude beans whether they were great or awful. With that decision they became not just coffee buyers, but coffee developers. (Incidentally, Starbucks also recently got into coffee development, buying a 600-acre farm in Costa Rica.)
It is an example of the magic that can occur when retailers have direct relationships with growers, something that happens frequently these days with produce and meat but rarely with coffee. With some luck, Martinez’ small batch of super beans will be on the Canlis coffee menu this summer.
The fixation on coffee at Canlis is relatively new. When patriarch, Peter Canlis opened the restaurant in 1950, it served Maxwell House as most restaurants would have back then. Canlis even worked as a spokesman for Maxwell House instant coffee in commercials and ads. Even today, coffee served in fine restaurants is still mostly an afterthought, a requisite ritual but not a featured event.
The Canlises got to thinking that if someone is paying three digits for a tasting menu, and the same for a bottle of wine, why should the coffee be any less special? So the brothers took their “laser beam of perfection and shined it on our coffee,” Brian said.
Canlis hired a director of coffee and a barista, Yeutter, to execute the menu. If a customer just wants a cup of house drip, he or she will be served from a machine-brewed pot of (currently) coffee roasted by Chicago’s Intelligentsia, which has expanded to Los Angeles and New York.
If a customer wants an espresso drink, Canlis has shots, cappuccinos and lattes, made in either “classic,” or “modern” style. In this context, classic means a dark roast; modern means a light roast. The dark will taste like what we have come to expect; the modern will be sweet and acidic, lighter in color. A shot of this modern stuff tastes downright lemony.
If a customer is all in, he or she can order from the bottom of the menu, a rotating assortment of custom-roasted, brewed-to-order beans from a small producer like Madcap Coffee Company in Michigan, Handsome Coffee Roasters in San Francisco, Bows & Arrows in Victoria, B.C., Heart in Portland or Seattle’s Kuma.
For a single serving, which can cost up to $10, Yeutter uses a Clever, a sort of combination French press and drip cone made of medical-grade plastic. For a large serving ($14-$18), he uses a glass Chemex.
Savored the way one might a fine wine, a $10 cup of brewed-to-order coffee seems less of an indulgence. Milstead & Co. in Fremont serves the same for less than $5.
At the urging of others, Martinez is mulling over the idea of an Onyx coffee shop in Seattle.
“All the top roasters have said, if you open a place in Seattle, we will be there all the time, so it's been a thought” he said. “Strategically it's not at the top of the list of my plans, but with the right person… I just don’t want to do anything half way.”