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Exploring a World of Roasting with Onyx Coffee Lab’s Mark Michaelson

Mark Michaelson

Photo courtesy of Mark Michaelson.

Mark Michaelson is the Head Coffee Roaster at Onyx Coffee Lab in Northwest Arkansas, the 2017 U.S. Roasting Champion, and a top 12 finisher at last year’s World Roasting Championship in Guangzhou, China.

A former pastor and current father of three, Michaelson has worked in coffee for a little over seven years after first being a patron at Onyx, then befriending co-founder Jon Allen before taking on some part-time coffee-related duties. As time passed and some personnel changed, Michaelson began roasting more, until he eventually left pastoring to dive into roasting on a full time basis.

We caught up with Michaelson — who just happened to place third at this year’s U.S. Roasting Championship — to chat about his roasting philosophy, how competitions have impacted his career, and his biggest influences in coffee.

Mark Michaelson

Photo courtesy of Mark Michaelson.

Lily Kubota: Do you have any hobbies or talents outside of coffee that most people don’t know about?

Mark Michaelson: I used to write a lot of poetry. Otherwise, I typically just hang out with my wife and kids.

LK: What are some of your personal goals with coffee (or outside of coffee)?

MM: Professionally, I would like to do more teaching, consulting, mentoring, and growing the Onyx brand. Personally, I strive to be a better parent and husband — I struggle with not bringing my work home with me.

LK: Speaking of your work, you’ve been busy this past year. How did it feel, after all that preparation, to win the U.S. Roasting Championship?

MM: Winning the U.S. Roasting Championship was unreal. I never thought when Jon asked me to come taste coffee with him that it would lead me to accomplishing that. It also reinforced my thoughts on Onyx Coffee Lab. The educational aspect of the company is really amazing, and the leadership style allows one to succeed.

Mark Michaelson

Photo courtesy of Mark Michaelson.

LK: What was your biggest takeaway from the World Roasting Championship?

MM: The coffee community is so diverse. I always knew that, but interacting with the same folks for multiple days really helped. It showed me that despite not being able to speak the same language, we all spoke “coffee.”

LK: Did you observe any interesting cultural differences in roasting styles or philosophies among the WRC competitors?

MM: This will be an oversimplification, but my general understanding of coffee roasting styles were reinforced. What I mean to say is that most European coffees I tasted were very Nordic in style (very light, tea-like body, high acid), with a more developed Italian roast (more sugar browning, heavier body, and lower acid) every now and then. The only surprise, honestly, was that there is so much specialty grade coffee being offered throughout the world.

Mark Michaelson

Photo courtesy of Mark Michaelson.

LK: How would you describe your roasting philosophy?

MM: At Onyx Coffee Lab, we roast coffees with a focus on extending caramelization to balance out the high acidity we get in our coffees. We want the coffee to be balanced, allowing the complexity of the coffee — not the acidity — to be the focus. This also allows the coffee’s origin to shine.

LK: Have you had any mentors or influential people in your life that you feel have helped guide your path to where you are today?

MM: The main one was Jon Allen. He allowed me the opportunity to be here today. Velton Ross, of Velton’s Coffee, is someone who took so much time in the early days to answer all my calls and questions. Chris Schooley and I became friends at my first Roasters Guild Retreat, and since then, he has helped me with various roaster maintenance questions. Marty Curtis has been a friend who always seems to have a helpful answer to any problems that arise. Tracy Allen taught me the value of cupping, and of trusting my gut. Trish Rothgeb and I don’t really know each other, though I have admired her work from afar, watched some videos of her talks online, and would love to learn more from her. Jen Apodaca is just amazing — her knowledge on roasting, articles she’s written, and her help during my World Roasting Championship practice — and I’d also like to roast with her more.

Mark Michaelson

Photo courtesy of Mark Michaelson.

Three Questions with Mark Michaelson

What inspires you most about coffee?

The lives that are changed, for the better, when people really care. This affects the whole coffee supply chain. Also, another thing that inspires me greatly is when a person is amazed by how coffee can taste, and therefore they start their own journey in coffee.

What troubles you most about coffee?

The daily challenge to fully understand what the coffee is trying to say. And, after interpreting the information correctly, to be consistent from batch to batch.

What would you be doing if you weren’t for coffee?

I used to pastor before I started in coffee. My ultimate dream back then was to teach in seminary. My degree is in Theology. At this point, though, anything that would provide for my family.

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