The Coffee Lab is opening this month as a space dedicated to educating people about the science behind coffee.
A new laboratory is about to open its doors in downtown Menlo Park. Its two founders have painstakingly assembled a collection of state-of-the-art techno-wizardry: We’re talking microscopes, lasers, and reverse-osmosis filtration systems. Wall-mounted televisions display readouts and measurements from sensors. There are white lab coats, plant specimens and seed samples. You may think this is the product of the latest venture capital-backed Silicon Valley biotech startup, but it’s not. This lab’s mission is to connect people more deeply to America’s favorite beverage — coffee.
To be clear, the Coffee Lab, which opens at the end of this month, is definitely not a coffee shop. You won’t be able to walk in during the day and leave with a cup of coffee or a pound of beans (it’s neither permitted nor staffed for that). Instead, its owners want you to focus more on the experience of brewing and tasting coffee, hoping to teach you enough to take your own home coffee practices to the next level.
The duo behind the vision to increase coffee literacy in the Bay Area are Matt Baker and his partner Vance Bjorn. The two are a far cry from the stereotypical image of hipster baristas that typify the third-wave coffee movement in the Bay Area and the Pacific Northwest. Both are former techies with roots in Silicon Valley — Baker was a product manager at several tech companies, including eBay, while Bjorn co-founded a biometrics company in Redwood City in the late 1990s. But make no mistake — the two are unabashed coffee nerds. They even own a condo in the Hawaiian coffee region of Ka’u, where they’ve spent time getting to know local farmers.
Baker attributes his love of coffee (at least partially) to his Italian heritage, though not many Italians take up refurbishing vintage espresso machines as a hobby like he did, or work a stint as a barista at their local coffee shop just to learn more about the drink.
Bjorn was also introduced to coffee at a young age. “Coffee is in my blood,” he says, attributing his first exposure to his mother. She operated a gourmet coffee shop in Minnesota back in the 1980s, when Starbucks was still just a small cafe in Seattle and instant coffee was America’s cup du jour.
The Coffee Lab represents the culmination of Baker and Bjorn’s passion for all things coffee, and a desire to share their love and knowledge of the drink with the community. “The idea of the Coffee Lab is to explore coffee,” Baker says. He likens the space to a wine-tasting room, with a goal of educating and delivering an immersive experience for novices and coffee buffs alike. Most importantly, Baker and Bjorn want their customers to come to the Coffee Lab to have a good time, discovering the nuances of coffee — from farming to roasting, brewing and tasting — along the way.
At the Coffee Lab, customers will be able to purchase a private class called Coffee 101. The two-hour session, offered for groups up to 12, covers coffee production from plant to cup and will be available to book on their website. To make the learning process less abstract, the class will include a video call with growers on a coffee farm, as well as a hands-on introduction to a variety of brewing methods and the basics of tasting coffee. In the future, Baker says the Coffee Lab will offer more advanced classes that dive into greater detail.
Outside of classes, the Coffee Lab is also designed to work as a meeting space. Baker hopes it will appeal to businesses, especially those that work remotely, that want to come together in person for regular team-building activities. At the end of a tasting session, the Coffee Lab will make its videoconferencing equipment and displays available for customers to use if they’d like to stay and get some work done.
The Coffee Lab is not Baker and Bjorn’s first foray into the coffee business. In late 2018, the duo purchased a facility in San Carlos and started roasting beans.
“The Bay Area is like a Mecca for coffee…we have the perfect climate in California for storing green beans,” Baker says. The region’s ideal humidity and access to the Port of Oakland allows Baker and Bjorn to buy green coffee beans from all over the world and store them for roasting. After some time fine-tuning the roasting process, the duo began selling coffee to local businesses. They even purchased a laser engraver, designing and offering custom laser-etched bags of their roasts for clients.
Baker and Bjorn’s first thought for expanding the business was a cold coffee they call Cloud Brew, a creamy, nitrogen-infused drink with production methods they are reluctant to discuss – and which they’ve trademarked. The plan was to keg Cloud Brew and sell it to tech offices in and around Silicon Valley until the pandemic hit. With buildings emptying out and workers going remote, they shelved the concept (they say Cloud Brew will launch formally in the future) and continued to focus on roasting until they came across a space they thought would be perfect for their Coffee Lab concept.
Despite Baker’s comparison, the Coffee Lab’s similarities to a wine-tasting room are more philosophical than architectural. The physical space resembles a museum exhibit and conference room rolled into one, with machines for every brewing method imaginable on display next to a large conference table and chairs.
Though the Coffee Lab’s cache of equipment may seem intimidating to novices, Baker and Bjorn remain steadfastly committed to keeping the practice of coffee consumption accessible to customers with a variety of budgets, technical skills and taste preferences. Next to a $4,000 gadget called the Decent, which looks like the love child of a tablet computer and an espresso machine, sits a Breville Bambino, which pours shots of the same stuff for under $300. In a corner, there’s also a Mr. Coffee machine, driving home the Coffee Lab’s point that good coffee is within reach for all.
Though Baker and Bjorn are not fans of pod-based coffee machines (it’s the only major brewing method missing from the lab), the Coffee Lab is otherwise absent of any puristic coffee dogma. “We’re not here to tell people how they should drink their coffee,” Baker says. “I like cream, but some people like artificial vanilla creamer. Who am I to say ‘Don’t drink that?’”
Its relaxed approach to coffee drinking aside, the Coffee Lab takes its science seriously. Along the side of the room, big-screen TVs mounted to the walls display outputs from a microscope. There are tools for measuring dissolved solids in coffee and the moisture content of a green coffee bean. Another TV displays the output of coffee analysis software, with charts plotting samples on a scale of underdeveloped to bitter and weak to strong.
Besides being a playground for geeks, the point of all the sciency stuff is to help customers connect the dots between the empirical qualities of a cup and the variables that influence those qualities. A UV spectrometer in the lab allows students to understand the acidity of different roasts, for instance, while a reverse-osmosis filtration system and added minerals show the importance of using high-quality water to brew. Through all of this, Baker and Bjorn’s hope is that the Coffee Lab’s customers leave with an understanding of how to control as many variables as possible — not to make some hypothetical perfect cup of coffee, but rather, whatever cup is perfect for them.
The Coffee Lab, 651 Oak Grove Ave., Menlo Park; 650-750-2739. By appointment only.