Phoenix Phoodies: Jason Silberschlag of Tempe's Cartel Coffee Lab Serves a Winning Cup of Coffee


College towns and coffee joints go together like peanut butter and jelly. This is good news for Jason and Amy Silberschlag, founders of Cartel Coffee Lab, whose Tempe-based roaster and coffee bar is mere meters from Mill Avenue. Open less than a year, they've earned legions of adoring fans, both for their straightforward approach to coffee and their Clover 1S, which set the gold standard for coffee machines. The Clover brews coffee to order, one lovin' cup at a time. But it's not just the equipment with skills, the baristas are bringin' it, too. Led by Jason, they've been racking up titles at regional barista championships. When they aren't turning out the titles, they're turning out the beans: about 200 pounds a week, roasted on-site in small batches.

Chow Bella: Cartel Coffee Lab - how'd you chose that name?

Jason Silberschlag: About two and a half years ago, my job was coming to and end. I have a real hard time working for other people. I decided to pursue a passion. I decided I wanted to run a coffee shop. My wife and I researched for a year and a half and then we opened up last January. We picked the name because it implies something kind of hardcore, dedication, and the name made sense since we kind of do sell drugs. (laughter) It's true - people are totally addicted to coffee.

CB: You must have some hardcore fans, then.
JS:: We are building a solid customer base. We have a lot of people who come in every day, and quite a few who even come in twice a day.

CB: I hear your coffee machine, the Clover, has its own fans as well.
JS:The machine is phenomenal. Unfortunately Starbucks bought the company so now they make them only for themselves. But what is more important is brewing one cup at a time, people have options. They can choose what kind of bean, the grind, and have exactly what they want, one cup at a time. People like options.

CB: Can you tell a lot about someone based on their drink order?
JS:Yes and no. Sometimes I'm surprised, but not always. To be honest, some of our drinks are very hardcore coffee drinks. Someone who orders a double espresso is looking for a much different experience than someone who wants a single cup of coffee.

CB: Do you get funky requests?
JS: Yes. We have a simple menu and we've had people get mad because we won't make what they want, like a raspberry mocha. People ask for a caramel macchiato, and we don't have that. There are people who are looking for those kinds of drinks, we're not the shop for them and that's okay.

CB: Now that you are an award winning barista, is life any different?
JS: (Laughter) The Specialty Coffee Association of America (scaa.org) puts on the Barista competitions. They have 10 regions, and we're the last region to get a competition. We had our first competition in Las Vegas in February, and the second in Austin. Unfortunately our region has the least connected barista network. To not have a coffee culture connected to a bigger community is a big drawback.

CB: And your team - you did well?
JS: We won. There were only four of us. But we are the Southwest Regional Barista Champions. (More laughter.)

-Sloane Burwell

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