It’s tough trying to sell coffee when the temperature outside is the same as a well steamed cappuccino, but Cartel Coffee Lab in Tempe, AZ has a threefold recipe for success: source incredible coffees, roast to highlight the natural flavor characteristics, and brew with skill and precision. Throw in a friendly staff, a DIY aesthetic, and an old strip mall down the street from a massive university and it’s little wonder that the Cartel Coffee syndicate has expanded to 5 locations across Arizona, including in Sky Harbor International Airport, Scottsdale, and Tucson.
When owner Jason Silberschlag founded Cartel Coffee Lab in 2007, there wasn’t much going on in Arizona in the way of specialty coffee. After several trips to coffee farms in Guatemala, El Salvador, Colombia, and Brazil, Silberschlag knew that he not only wanted to import the highest quality coffee possible, he also wanted to pay the farmers a fair price for their hard work. The desire for transparency and increased recognition for the farmers is behind Cartel’s practice of putting the farmer’s name on each bag of coffee.
When I visited Cartel over the Thanksgiving holiday I kicked things off with a shot of their signature Black Market Espresso (BME), a single origin espresso that changes seasonally, served with a glass of sparkling mineral water. This month the BME is a Carmen, El Salvador. This fully-washed, Bourbon variety had a creamy body with a lingering finish of cherry and chocolate. In a word: wonderful. The complexity was lost in my cappuccino, but the sweetness of the coffee came through the thick, luscious foam (no wet cappuccinos here!). The quality was consistent over our four visits, and considering my wife and I had four different baristas and there often was a long line, it’s safe to say that Cartel has a good training program and doesn’t cut corners during a rush.
My wife ordered their iced vanilla latte, sweetened with agave nectar. She let me steal a sip and though I usually don’t go for sweet drinks, I could tell it was made with the same care as my espresso and cappuccino. This came as no surprise considering Cartel takes their equipment just as seriously as their coffee sourcing. The Tempe location has a 3 group head La Marzocco Strada, a Mazzer Robur grinder for espresso, and a Mahlkönig Kenia for pour overs.
The espresso at Cartel is top notch, but their filter coffees are what really set them apart. Filter coffees are brewed by the cup on Hario V60, Chemex, or aeropress. My favorite was the El Limonar, a coffee farm owned by Rosa Maria Ovalle Mont in the Huehuetenango region of Guatemala. This coffee was sweet, clean, and balanced with an abrupt finish. I also picked up a bag of their Musasa Cooperative Rwanda, a washed and sun dried 100% Red Bourbon from the Ruli Sector, in the Rushashi District. The Musasa was so sweet and creamy it didn’t even last a week at our house.
If you visit Cartel you’ll get a great cup of coffee made by a skilled barista, but you may not find a seat. The hordes of ASU students capitalizing on the free WiFi and the scarcity of seating makes Cartel the kind of cafe you shouldn’t camp out at. During a couple of our visits we had to drink our coffees at the bar, which thankfully made for some nice conversation with the barista. Cyclists will likely enjoy the art installation made of reclaimed bicycle wheels.
The Tempe location is located at the corner of University and Ash. The Sky Harbor location is in Terminal 4 at gate C13. It’s behind security, and completely worth scheduling for a layover.