BrewLab offers chance to ‘espresso yo’ self’


Taylor Wegner

The menu at BrewLab sits above the store’s craft soda bottles. BrewLab, recently opened and located in Campustown, serves specialty espresso drinks as well as craft soda.

By Taylor Wegner, Staff Writer

Fans of espresso, craft soda and modern decor can come together at BrewLab, a recently opened specialty coffee shop.

Located at 630 S Fifth St in Champaign, BrewLab is currently operating on Mondays through Saturdays from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. 

Two years in the works, it’s clear upon entrance that a significant amount of care and thought went into creating this unique community space. Everything from the furniture, to the building materials, to the glassware, was painstakingly curated. Even the pastry case was custom made by some of the shop’s current employees.

While many of the campus coffee shops are rather eccentrically decorated, with mismatching and painstakingly (yet giving the appearance of haphazardly) arranged furniture, BrewLab houses a sleekly industrial, yet paradoxically cozy, interior.

The floors are concrete, but the tables are made of a carefully selected, warm-toned wood. The walls are strikingly white, but covered in writing and doodles and, at the time of writing, someone’s math homework. The layout is deliberately minimalist, but full of autonomously growing plants. All of these seemingly opposing variables effectively mesh together to make for a wholly unique space.

“For some weird reason it just works, everything blends together nicely,” said Merry Thomas, general manager and veteran barista. “If you take any of these elements out, the space doesn’t really work; but then you combine them and somehow it does.”

The white walls, in particular, grant the space its character. Dry erase markers are located on several of the shop’s tables to encourage guests to mark up the walls. In this way, the space contains lasting impressions of the distinct personalities that make up the vibrant Champaign-Urbana community.

“The dry erase wall has always kind of been the main thought,” Thomas said. “We wanted to create a place where people could share thoughts, whether it’s about a community event, or if they’re working on a project, or they just want to draw something really cool. That’s something we encourage people to do, just come over here and draw because it’s so much fun to see, at the end of the week, what has been constructed.”

The bathrooms, too, are worth noting. The walls, adorned in elaborate murals, were painted by local artists.

Taylor Wegner
A local artist’s mural is on display in the restroom at BrewLab.

The specifically curated image of the coffee shop reflects the equal, if not greater, amount of care that goes into the coffee they serve.

In regards to their actual products, pour overs are BrewLab’s forte. As is the standard at many specialty coffee shops, these pour overs are made exclusively using single origin beans.

“You can get a lot of those notes out so much more with a pour over versus a drip coffee,” Thomas said. “When we make a pour over, we put a lot of thought into it. We have refined the process so much to make sure that we’re giving people the exact same kind of coffee experience every single time they come in here.”

The selection of single origins will change throughout the year, based on seasonal availability and the desire to experiment with other roasteries. Currently, BrewLab is offering single origins from Counter Culture, Halfwit and Columbia Street—a local staple.

The current Halfwit offering, for instance, is a naturally processed Ethiopian coffee. Lightly roasted, the flavor accents include milk chocolate, strawberry, and jasmine. Though there is a strong berry taste, the other notes are easily detectable, making for a delightfully complex cup of coffee.

For those who prefer milk with their coffee, BrewLab offers a wide assortment of espresso drinks, including favorites like lattes and cappuccinos.

Their espresso beans, too, are from Halfwit. Catering to Zelda fans, this particular espresso blend is called the “Triforce.” Because the people at BrewLab have such a strong passion for coffee, they want to ensure that their beans come from people who share this sentiment.

Regarding Halfwit, Thomas commented, “They’re a nerdy group of people that care a lot about coffee.”

Individual bags of coffee beans are available for purchase, as well.

“We’re going to be changing those every month because coffee is seasonal and it’s very important that people understand that,” Thomas said.

A large part of the caffeine business is educating customers of their product, said Thomas.

“A lot of people sort of take coffee for granted, but when you consider all of the variables that go into making a cup of coffee, like the people who harvest the beans, and the fact that there are environmental issues that are harming crops, and what is being done to fix those problems,” Thomas said. “Like, how you can accommodate the fact that it’s too warm in some places? These roasteries are actually working very closely with the farmers they’re working with to combat the problems.”

In this way, BrewLab offers a multifaceted approach to their trade. Not only are they concerned with ensuring the quality of their products and services, but they find it just as important to remain socially and environmentally conscientious.

Aside from coffee, there is an extensive craft soda selection. At the front of the shop, a large portion of wall space is dedicated to displaying the dozens of craft sodas that BrewLab offers. Guests can choose to purchase individual bottles, or whole six packs to take home.

Taylor Wegner
Crates of craft soda are stacked at BrewLab for those who dislike coffee or are wanting to try something new.

“With the craft soda, that’s kind of a thing that’s slowly been moving throughout the US lately,” Thomas said. “There’s this pull for actual craft soda and you can see that trend with beer, as well as coffee, so basically we just wanted to offer something that was different.”

But for those who are interested in trying a wholly unique coffee beverage, BrewLab is offering something they call the “Americola.” As the name suggests, it is part coffee, part soda. Though this may seem like an odd pairing, the flavors complement each other very well.

Thomas explained that the staff at BrewLab came up with the Americola because they wanted to offer an additional option for those who generally are not coffee drinkers.

As far as food options go, their custom pastry case is stocked with croissants, muffins and other baked goods. Though there are no immediate plans to start offering additional food options, such as salads or sandwiches, these items are future possibilities, Thomas said.

This unique space can even be rented out for private events. The staff is fairly flexible with scheduling, and willing to arrange a time outside of business hours as long as the arrangements are discussed in advance. So far, BrewLab has hosted a conference for local artists, as well as an event for a mathematics group.

For regulars, a punch card is available to grant guests a free drink after a certain amount of purchases. Or, there’s the option to provide a phone number or email address in order to electronically keep track of purchases. Through the latter option, guests get a star for every $3 they spend, and then get a free drink after accumulating 5 stars.

“It’s just easy, guests don’t have to worry about a punch card because a lot of times you’ll have like ten of these cards. It’s like, ‘Oh man, you’ve gotta combine them all to get a coffee?’ So this takes the stress out of that,” Thomas said.

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The initial publication of this article had BrewLab’s soft opening hours. The article has been updated to reflect the shop’s new hours.