Jason Burton has built a career around his knowledge of beverages from fine spirits to craft beers, from single-origin coffee to cocktail trends. His firm The Lab is behind the original recipes at frozen cocktail purveyor Snow and Company as well as the multi-city event dubbed the Caffeine Crawl.
As a beverage marketer and founder of The Lab (formerly Lab5702) based in Kansas City, Burton and his team help inform consumers about quality-driven beverage information near and far. The team’s experience spans the fields of beer, spirits, wine, coffee, tea and cocktails. The Lab also assists producers that care about a better overall solution in their niche market. To help specialty beverage companies, The Lab offers a range of services including brand marketing, graphic design, events, public relations, networking, and more.
Pete: Tell me about your experience in the beverage industry.
Jason: I was the Marketing Director for The Roasterie for nearly 4 years. Working for such a small company and being passionate about what I was promoting (coffee), I felt it was important to know a lot about the subject. I got really wrapped up in coffee preparation, which led to an interest in pairings. That opened the doors to an intro world of cocktails and a culinary side with Houlihan’s corporate. I was the Marketing Director for their specialty concepts. Those are J. Gilbert’s and the Bristol here in town, and there’s a total of fourteen of those around the country. Working on that specialty side versus the Houlihan’s side, I was able to work with many local distilleries, coffee roasters, and breweries in each market.
Pete: What do you do at The Lab as a beverage marketer?
Jason: I get this one all the time. We’re still a bit of a mystery and maybe that’s because it’s hard to define what we do. I personally handle marketing with our team, currently Julie Levitt in KC and Naomi Havlen in Colorado, for four different quality-driven beverage companies. We do not do everything for any of those clients/partners. There’s a mix of social media (my favorite), design/branding, public relations/networking, and events for all of those partners. Each client is on a monthly retainer. The closest one is 2.5 hours away and two of them are on the West Coast, and only one roasts coffee.
Pete: Where did the inspiration for the Caffeine Crawl come from? What is the event about?
Jason: There was a huge gap in coffee related events. Employees at shops and roasters were the only ones going to these events. The irony is/was that these companies are making money for consumers, but these companies weren’t hosting consumer-friendly events on a large scale. Based on that I played around with the pub crawl concept and tweaked it to fit the current state of the Caffeine Crawl. Kim Lovelady was very helpful with ideas and helping get the Crawl concept going.
Pete: When did you first learn to appreciate the power of coffee?
Jason: That’s an easy one. During my first years of college, I started going to Broadway and sketching while getting the most out of a cup of coffee. I was a graphic design major, so coffee was key. And once I went to the University of Central Missouri, I spent many days at Java Junction, which is still a key part of Warrensburg’s community. I’m still friends with the owner, Art Ozias.
During those years I just knew what seemed good, but had no idea about single-origins or macchiatos – a favorite of mine now. This would have been 1995.
Pete: Name three coffees you’ve had recently and why you’re excited about them.
Jason: Hmm, good question and a tough one. We are really, really spoiled. We’ve had 20 different roasters in since Thanksgiving. No one anywhere close to us geographically offers that. I’m so into Kenyan coffees and picking roasters is hard because friendships are involved. I’ve been surprised with a great Mexican from Sunergos in Louisville, a sample espresso from Copper Canyon in Springfield and a Burundi from Madcap in Michigan, but I can go on and on.
Pete: The Lab isn’t limited to coffee. What wine, beer, spirits, teas, and beverage trends are on your radar lately?
Jason: Oh, we are all over this. I love the research part. Love it. The best way to get trends is to go out and experience them. I people watch like crazy and talk to people (consumers) everywhere I go. That’s the best way to learn. I like what I’m seeing with a shift in California wines outside the popular areas, and wine getting better in the U.S. as a whole. Wine in kegs, wine in cocktails and so forth has been fun to keep an eye on.
Spirits and distilleries are taking off. That’s hard to keep up with. When I travel I always try the products from local distilleries. I’m going to Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver next month, so there will be a lot of research there. It has been going on for a while, but I like the concept of aged whole cocktails.
Beer is kicking ass right now. It’s my favorite thing to drink at the moment. I really wish we’d get more East Coast beers. A lot of cool things happening from small breweries in the Mid-Atlantic.
Pete: What is About The Coffee about?
Jason: I’m biased, but the concept is brilliant for KC. Marty and Tooti Roe own the company and it fueled from a decade of them running their other company Service Call. They deal with coffee all day long. They felt like coffee lovers, whether new or old, needed a place to try out products and get answers face-to-face. ATC was born out of that, and it’s truly a toy store for coffee fans.
About The Coffee – 3185 Terrace, 816.286.8771, email@example.com
We cater to the coffee curious that want to try out brewers, machines, grinders, tampers, and so on, without having to view online only. Basically, a toy store for coffee fanatics. No attitude here and we keep it very loose and chill. We welcome the hardcore fan all the way to the beginner.
Pete: Favorite places around Kansas City to grab a beverage? What beverage(s)?
Jason: I feel very guilty in this area. I have spent more time at bars outside KC in 2012 than in KC. My go-to chill, close to home is Julian. My beer with grub go-to is Swagger and Grinders. I like the Foundry a lot, but for some reason I don’t visit Westport much. Cocktails are another story. I try to bounce around, but stick to Extra Virgin and The Rieger mostly. I need to go see Arturo [Vera-Felicie]. We did the original recipes for Snow and Company. Once it warms up I’ll be there more.
Pete: You’ve been granted a wish to have one drink with another person anywhere in the world. What are you drinking, with who, and where?
Jason: The answer my wife wouldn’t like is Sofia Vergara of Modern Family, but I’d love to have her there with us and not in a weird way. I miss drinking and talking with Karen Foley, editor of Imbibe. She’s a champ. Unrealistically, a root beer float with my grandfather who passed away 25 years ago. And the answer you want to hear, Andy Samberg at the Euclid Hall in Denver. Just because we’d have a blast and act fools. I’d start with a badass local beer, move to a cocktail and back to a different beer from California. He’d pay for the cab home. The location for the others would be in Kansas City because I need to get out and support these bars more.
Pete: What else should people know about you and your beverage adventures?
Jason: I really believe The LAB is on to something. We’ve stayed true to our roots and work with partners based on quality, passion, and personality versus companies only trying to make money.
What we are doing no one in at least a 400 mile radius is doing. We love promoting the industry as a whole and try to keep it to a minimum on posting about The LAB only. I’m really proud of our doo-zies [Individually handcrafted beverage wraps (koozy) made from leather.] and what we went through to come up with the final product on those. They aren’t cheap at $50. I’d rather work with Bandbox out of Portland and have each one made by hand with love than made in China and sell them for $30. It’s not about the money. Too many people are selling their souls chasing only that.