September Brand Spotlight: Coffee Labs
Written by our Craft Beer Director and Merchant of Joy, Brendon O’Brien
A wild-eyed man approached me holding up bottles of Guatemalan rum and ginger liqueur “Would either of these work in a coffee cocktail?” he bellowed. At first, I admired his breakfast of champions attitude and then I realized with whom I was speaking. This was the day I met Mike Love, owner and founder of Coffee Labs in Tarrytown. He had the zeal and intrigue of a mad scientist coupled with the appearance and attitude of someone I used to go to punk shows with. Mike was coming off the heels of many big wins at the Ultimate Barista Championships and was already working on an espresso cocktail creation for the next year. This was 2008 and I was working in a wine & spirits shop conveniently located just down the block from Coffee Labs. To say this man sent me on my coffee journey is an absolute understatement- he buckled me into a coffee rocket ship, threw a brick on the gas pedal and I’m still traveling through space today.
I am far from the only coffee lover to be sent on this path from Mike’s passion and knowledge. You’d be hard pressed to find any coffee lover, barista or roaster in the Hudson Valley who hasn’t been enamored with Coffee Labs dedication to quality- working directly with coffee farmers around the globe to ensure the highest quality beans from the most desired lots, all the while focusing on ethical business practices, sustainability, and above all else- the relationships fostered between equally passionate people. I asked Mike when he had realized that he “made it” in the coffee business- his reply was focused and earnest. He told me it was upon meeting Jim Kosalos, President of San Cristobal Coffee Importers in Jalisco, Mexico, after having a 45-minute conversation about traceability, lot numbers, and sustainability that ended in teary eyes. Mike announced “I wanna work with that dude!” It’s humbling moments like these that have shaped the Coffee Labs trajectory.
Tired of being overworked and underpaid as a Chef, Mike saw coffee as a culinary adjacent outlet where he could work directly with farmers and prepare the raw materials with expertise. It was around this time he met his future wife, Alicia, working at a local restaurant. The two quickly bonded over their love of cuisine, travel, and exploring other cultures. Alicia and Mike were happily married and set their sights on pursuing coffee excellence together. Coffee Labs opened in May of 2003 as the first “third wave” coffee roaster in Westchester County with a dedication to sustainability, quality, and elevated specialty coffees. In 2004, the duo took their first trip to Mexico to buy at “origin” at the San Cristobal Co-op. There was no turning back now.
One of the biggest challenges posed to third wave coffee roasters in the early 2000s was the task of changing people’s perceptions of what coffee should be. Long mired in the world of artificially flavored beans and syrups served in unthinkably large quantities, the Loves had their work cut out for them. Mike and Alicia knew that education was the best path forward, working with customers to help them understand why they liked what they like. Pushing back against an industry that had gone all-in on dark roast coffee, the Loves initiated conversations with their customers to see what flavor profiles their customers enjoyed and then steered them to single origins or blends that embodied those best characteristics inherently. This hands on approached garnered them so much adoration and patronage, the rest was history.
To this day there are few, if any, local coffee roasters who can boast as many awards, accolades, and accomplishments as Coffee Labs. In 2008 Mike won the Ultimate Barista Championship and took home 18 other category awards including Latte Art, Espresso Cocktail and Best Brew. He continued to bring home medals until 2012 when he decided to focus solely on Coffee Labs and stop competing professionally. To put it bluntly when you are drinking something from Coffee Labs you are drinking the best of the best. The Loves continue to serve these award-winning competition drinks and have gone on to collaborate with many local businesses to further imagine what coffee can be. Working with restaurants, breweries, and distilleries Coffee Labs continues to innovate and push the perceptions of coffee’s potential. Perhaps one of their most celebrated innovations is aging green (unroasted) coffee beans in used distillery barrels. Often the barrels still contain traces of the previous tenant, infusing the beans with all the aromas and flavors of a distilled spirit. After roasting these beans, you are presented with a coffee that boasts the complex characteristics of an aged whiskey or rum coupled with the welcoming chocolate, nut, and fruit qualities inherent to the bean. It is truly a connoisseur’s delight.
As I sat in Coffee Labs newly renovated and beautiful space in Tarrytown, Mike was kind enough to have a barista introduce me to one of their specialty drinks- a decadent but sophisticated blend of cold brew concentrate, chocolate sauce, hibiscus rose simple syrup and black pepper. I could barely get questions out in between sips of this majestic beauty. As I marveled over the beverage that was outside of my normal black coffee comfort zone, Mike Love said, “I want people to perceive coffee like a beautiful mead, wine or cocktail.” He is the teacher; we are the students.
We are proud to say that Coffee Labs has been a permanent fixture on our shelves for years. The centerpiece of our local coffee selection. So, the next time you are in one of our locations grab a bag of Dog House, their flagship blend that is sure to please every member of the family, or go down the rabbit hole and explore their thoughtfully sourced and roasted single origin selections. I started my day with a pour over of their El Salvador Finca Paraiso: Intenso Yeast- a cup that boasts equal parts toasted hazelnut, baker’s chocolate, and earthy black pepper notes. I promise you; you will not be disappointed, and your palate will thank you every sip of the way!