Baristas, Bartenders and Bouncers: Jason Silberschlag at Cartel Coffee Lab

In an unassuming corner of a Tempe strip mall lies every coffee drinker's dream. The Cartel Coffee Lab and its coffee-obsessed owner, Jason Silberschlag, is turning out the best cup of Joe in the city and for less then you pay at Starbucks.

Silberschlag's attention to detail is evident the moment you step into the shop. A red, San Franciscan coffee roaster stands in the corner while high-end coffee machines sit on every counter, ever-ready to make a great cup. Silbershlag sat with us between crafting espressos to explain what it is about coffee that he loves, and how he wants to spread it to the rest of the world.

New Times: You seem very focused on creating the best cup of coffee possible. What brought that desire about?

Jason Silberschlag: I have an over-arching desire to have quality in everything I do, and that just happened pretty naturally with the coffee. But specifically, I was just going to do a coffee shop, but the more I looked into it the more I saw this wave of "boutique coffee houses" popping up, which is a terrible way to describe it but it works the best. But people who are involved in that movement are really staring to understand what it means to have a really high-end quality coffee, and not charge $20 a cup for it.

Which is happening. And even places like Circle K are starting to have their premium roast coffee and McDonald’s has iced coffee, which is lame, but what’s happening is that we’re changing the idea of coffee. Used to be coffee was $1 at a diner with free refills as long as you sat in the booth, to people paying $3.50 for a single cup. And it’s thanks to places like Starbucks that allow me to do what I do, and make great coffee, and it’s not weird to charge $2.50 a cup for it. It’s changed the way consumers think.

NT: Speaking of Starbucks, they’re changing their shops, and they are going to include Clover machines, which you used to corner the market on. How’s that going to affect your business?

JS: They bought the entire Clover company actually. So that pretty much screws use out of ever getting another Clover in a retail location. I was the only distributor of that here, but they pretty much killed that for me. But luckily, the Clover’s not the only way to brew great coffee. It’s just a really convenient way.

NT: What made you decide to roast your own coffee?

JS: I didn’t feel that there were any really quality roasters in Arizona, or the Southwest for that matter. I know of one in LA and a guy in Texas, but that’s about it. There are many people who just focus on the quality of the coffee, not just the run of the mill coffee roaster. There are 40 roasters in Phoenix alone, but I wanted to do it myself and make it the best. We’re not the cheapest coffee in town, but I’m sure we’re not the most expensive. So the point was really to give people great value and quality, and I didn’t really see that happening anywhere else, and I felt we needed to roast coffee to achieve that.

NT: Where do you get your coffee?

JS: Two farms really; one in Guatemala and one in Brazil. The coffee from Guatemala is from a farm I visited a little over year ago and built up a personal relationship with them, and we by directly from the Farmers.

The Brazilian is a similar fair-trade relationship, and they do a really high-quality job. They bag their coffee in vacuum-sealed packages, not burlap sacks that get damaged by the elements. And that way the quality we’re trying to achieve goes all the way back to the farmers.

NT: What sets Cartel Coffee apart from the other coffee houses in town?

JS: We do a lot of thing that other shops aren’t willing to do, like our coffee grinder is $1,900 bucks. Most people think $500 is a lot for a grinder, but ours is better. It goes to eleven. We really pay attention to what we’re doing and hopefully provide a good cup.

Cartel Coffee Lab, 225 W. University, Tempe; 480-225-0300.

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Jonathan McNamara