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Lemon Verbena, vanilla custard, blackberry and chocolate are just a few of the flavors you might taste in a cup of coffee at Onyx Coffee Bar in Bellingham. Owner Edwin Martinez imports and exports raw green coffee beans from Guatemala to roasters all over the world and at his coffee bar on Railroad Avenue where patrons can taste these flavors — which range from subtle to robust — firsthand. Lightly roasted to accentuate the extraordinary range of flavor that a darker roast can too easily mask, each cup is meticulously prepared upon order to showcase natural flavors in their purest forms.

Onyx Coffee Bar
Onyx Coffee Bar Manager, Kevin Bailey, pours a fresh cup of coffee for tasting at Onyx Coffee Bar. Photo credit: Onyx Coffee Bar.

At Onyx Coffee Bar, showcasing a coffee’s natural quality is a bit of a science. “The grind size is important, the water quality, the water temperature and then lastly the contact time,” Edwin explains. “Our goal here is to be really meticulous with each one of these details so that the water is a perfect temperature, the coffee is weighed by the tenth of a gram, and then the water is also weighed so, as it’s poured, we’re not using too much or not enough water to get the right extraction. In the end, that’s all just an effort to showcase the quality of the raw product that’s roasted in a way that allows the raw product to shine, which in general is a lighter roast.”

A great cup of coffee begins in remote highlands on small farms where varieties of plants are dependent on soil quality, elevation and long-term care. “On the global level, you want to be between the tropic of Cancer and the tropic of Capricorn,” Edwin explains. “Most of our coffees are in the 5,000 up to 6,000 feet high [range]. If you don’t have that elevation, the weather is warmer and coffee will grow faster.” Fruit that grows faster comes across visually as healthy, but it’s the slow-growing fruit — the fruit that has experienced struggle — that takes the appropriate time for natural sugars to develop.

This natural sweetness is one of the qualities Edwin really looks for in a great cup of coffee. “The number one thing is sweetness, number two is acidity, and number three is a clean cup.” By clean, Edwin means absent of certain defects that can lower the quality of the coffee. When taste testing coffee, Edwin looks for that sweetness that only comes from slow-growing fruit, bright acidity, and the variety of fruit flavors made noticeable by a lighter roast.

Onyx Coffee Bar
Preparation is key to making a good cup of coffee. Photo credit: Theresa Golden.

Achieving this quality of coffee, for the small farmer, is the primary hope for a sustainable niche in the marketplace. “It takes a lot time and it’s a lot of fuel just to move fertilizer, bags, tools, and people let alone the coffee — and coffee is very labor intensive,” Edwin explains. “It takes a long time to produce, so for us to have a good crop we need to plant that seven years prior. Because it’s such a long-term commitment — and because our cost of production is higher — lower quality coffees aren’t economically sustainable in Guatemala.” Edwin explains that consumers won’t buy coffee simply because it was harder and more expensive to make. The quality of the coffee really needs to be noticeable for roasters to be willing to purchase it at a price that will cover the farms production expenses. Obtaining such a high quality takes a lot of knowledge, dedication and commitment to the product and the community.

For Edwin, connection to farmers and coffee production began with his own childhood visits to his grandparent’s farm. “I grew up in Guatemala for the first 12 years of my life and my grandfather has a small farm that grows coffee.” Here, vacations at the farm were richly immersed in the coffee growing business. Born in California, growing up in Guatemala and traveling between both cultures, Edwin didn’t feel like he entirely fit in. But part of that experience was fun and exciting for him. “Part of growing coffee in Guatemala is once you pick the fruit you take the skin off, you ferment the fruit off and then you wash it and then you have to dry it. You sun dry it on a big patio. So we would clean these patios up and I would skateboard on the patios. So I would be really far away from the city, no electricity, yet I just had an amazing time riding a skateboard in a place where no one had seen a skateboard there.”

In his adult life, Edwin operated a small espresso cart in Bellingham giving him a first taste of the retail side of coffee. While working with a company that manufactures small roasters, Edwin became interested in learning how to import coffee from his farm in Guatemala. Deciding to move to Guatemala with his wife, Edwin worked through the time-consuming challenge of trying to get a license to export coffee in a country where previous export licenses were typically grandfathered in. Once licensed, his first attempt at selling the coffee ended in buyers agreeing to a much lower price than previously established, resulting in a loss. However, the second attempt proved fruitful.

Onyx Coffee Bar
Owner Edwin Martinez takes great pride in providing quality, naturally sweet, flavorful coffee to his Onyx Coffee Bar customers. Photo credit: Theresa Golden.

“We sold all the coffee from our farm and started buying from neighbors,” Edwin shares. “Then, over the last nine or ten years, we’ve slowly grown. We’ve had some spurts and plateaus where we’ve developed more relationships with other farmers and we connect roasters all over the world with these farmers directly and we work with them really to provide any support that we can that they need.”

For Edwin, Onyx Coffee Bar was a natural outgrowth of Onyx Coffee. What began as a need for a private office and lab, separate from home, eventually became a brick and mortar place where roasters could have a private coffee tasting experience to aid in their decision making. Being that the location was already in a retail storefront, opening the tasting experience up to the public seemed like a natural evolution. “I wanted to showcase the coffees that we had, showcase really great coffee in a way where people could taste the product and maybe develop curiosity and learn more about how it was processed, not just what country it came from but anything that would draw them in closer to maybe appreciate difference in quality, which then would lead to people being willing to pay more or less based on quality.”

The quality flavors you find at Onyx Coffee Bar today, however, won’t necessarily be the flavors you find tomorrow. With a menu that changes each week, surprising new coffee tastes can be an expected experience worth looking forward to.

Onyx Coffee Bar
Each cup is meticulously prepared upon order to showcase its natural flavor in its purest from at Onyx Coffee Bar. Photo credit: Theresa Golden.

Onyx Coffee Bar can be found at 1015 Railroad Avenue #105. Previously open solely on Saturdays from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., hours are currently extended to include Tuesday through Friday from 7:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.

Edwin’s vison and passion for coffee is also behind a new coffee house called Primer that will be opening this summer adjacent to Elizabeth Station. Designed to be more of a traditional coffee house, complete with cream and sugar, Primer hopes to offer coffee from specialty roasters along with accompanying treats.

 

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