First Taste

If You Love Cartel's Coffee, Wait Until You Try The Beer

When a new spot opens in town, we can't wait to check it out and let you know our initial impressions. First Taste, as the name implies, is not a full-blown review, but instead a peek inside restaurants that have just opened, sampling a few items, and satisfying curiosities (yours and ours).

In our book, there are two kinds of people in this world: those who love Cartel coffee and liars. Well, maybe not liars, but when we ask naysayers where they prefer to get their joe, they typically name some flouncy cafe that serves, you guessed it -- Cartel coffee. Whenever we need to get a boatload of work done, we grab a hyper-caffeinated, low acidity large iced toddy from Cartel and hunker down at one of the small metal tables, not needing the overly adorable ambiance its competitors supply. We remember the day we saw a public zoning notice outside, getting pumped for the day it would serve home-brewed beer. Well, that day has come.

Cafe/Bar: Cartel Coffee Lab Location: 225 West University Drive Suite 101, Tempe Open: Since 2007, though the microbrewery has only been tapped this week Drink: In-house brewed beer to match the in-house roasted coffee Price: $3-$5

See Also: Tempe's Cartel Coffee Lab to Release First Craft Beer & Open Microbrewery -- Plus, "Crazy Hour" How To: Latte Art with Jen Macias at Cartel Coffee Lab

Almost a year later, that day has come -- Cartel has expanded into what used to be a tanning salon and Ash Ave. Comics' old location and added a bar and brewing station to accommodate the suds. We shall now refer to that expansion as "Bartel." While the Cartel-brewed beer is currently only at this location, the Scottsdale location does have a beer license, so it should be there soon, too.

The new half of the cafe is full of simple booth seating near the bar. It has two taps serving in-house brewed beer exclusively, though we hear word from brewer Matt Johnson that a third and fourth beer will be added to Cartel's repertoire in the near future. (A spicy amber rye and imperial pale ale for the curious beer nerd.)

Johnson was pulled into the mix as a friend of the business who's been home-brewing for the past decade. In that time, he learned a thing or two about IBU (international bitterness units), ABV (alcohol by volume, duh), and other beery things and brought it to Cartel. But enough background -- how's the beer?

Right now, Cartel offers two brews made twice daily in the "coffee lab": a desert pale ale and a brown ale brewed with (surprise) Cartel coffee. The desert pale ale is named thusly because it is brewed like a typical American pale ale and then finished off with agave at the end of brewing. This takes some of the bitterness out that is characteristic of pale ales.

The Desert Pale Ale's 110 IBUs ensure that it is, in fact, a pale ale, although it is a tad lighter and more citrusy in flavor. Its 5.5 percent ABV will be closer to a solid 6 percent in the coming months, Johnson said. But if you're looking for something a little higher in alcohol content right now, go for the Coffee Brown.

It was stupid of us to question whether they'd brew a coffee beer at Cartel -- what we didn't expect was an ale. Coffee notes are common in porters and stouts, so to get an nut brown ale that's strong in coffee flavor was exciting. Johnson says they went for an ale to let the coffee shine, instead of being merely another aspect of the beer -- and it does! The Coffee Brown is definitely our favorite of the two. After all, why go to Cartel for a brew if you're not going to get a coffee beer?

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Heather Hoch is a music, food, and arts writer based in Tucson. She enjoys soup, scotch, Electric Light Orchestra, and walking her dog, Frodo.
Contact: Heather Hoch