An interview with founder Andrew Sinclair
How did you get into coffee?
I’d just moved to L.A. in 2012 and we were meeting a group of people at a coffee shop. And of course, I’m a first-time specialty coffee drinker, so a mocha sounds good. And I kept coming back and getting it. And then the barista made these recommendations, like, “Dude, you should really try this.” I think everybody is introduced to coffee at some point through just living in the world—it’s everywhere—but I think it’s another thing to start appreciating coffee. I started appreciating coffee back at that coffee shop, where a guy took time out of his day and said hey, you wanna not be lame? Drink this.
Do you feel like that’s a philosophy and a teaching that you try to impart on people who come to Mad Lab?
Oh yes, 100%. Through doing this for over a decade now, I can see when someone takes a sip of something and they’re intrigued by it: half confused, half excited. And I can say, “You wanna know about that coffee?” They say, “Yes.” It’s always a hushed yes. Always. And I say, “Okay, let’s get into it.” Because of that first interaction, because I’ve had people take the time with me when they didn’t need to, when I see that expression I know I can take a second. Because they’ll actually appreciate it.
What drew you to the roasting side?
I saw a huge need in Los Angeles for neighbors serving neighbors. I wanted to serve my neighborhood something that was intentionally made for them. Ten years ago, roasters from other cities would come into town and try to dictate what the people in L.A. should enjoy. And it’s not based on their preferences, it’s just being dictated to them, and I didn’t like the way that that felt. At the second coffee shop I worked at, I told the owner, “Hey, I’m trying to get better at roasting.” He said, “Cool, there’s a basement here, learn down there.” He had this little roaster, it’s literally a toaster oven with a rotisserie thing in there, the first sample roaster that came out. He made me roast fifty pounds of coffee on that. Because sometimes we weren’t going to get our delivery in time, and this thing that only really roasts like 500 grams at a time? We need fifty pounds from it. It was during that time that I really learned how to roast, because nobody wanted to teach anybody, everything was a closely guarded secret, so I literally had to sweat in that basement and just figure it out. It was all self-taught. But I think by being self-taught, I’ve never had a lot of the biases that exist in the coffee world, because I was able to create my own ocean to sail in.
What does it mean to be an L.A. roaster?
Honestly, all of us L.A. roasters got together back in the day and asked what is coffee for L.A.? What does that look like? Coffee’s a fruit, it should taste like a fruit. If you look at California as a whole, at L.A. in particular, we’re really big on some good-tasting fruit. We love going out to our farmers’ market, we love going to our local place, you go a hundred yards that way and there’s a fruit guy, and you know their fruit came from somewhere in California and, oh man, it tastes good. That’s how our coffee should taste. So ever since day one for Mad Lab, we roast for fruitiness and sweetness, because that’s the L.A. way.
What made you want to open a shop?
It’s what was needed. For my neighbors. Honestly. I didn’t want us to regress as a coffee city. I didn’t want other people from other markets moving in here and saying, “We’re actually L.A. coffee.” It had happened before. That’s why I said yes to Sunset. That’s why I’ve said yes to all these other shops that we have now. Because I’m trying to claim space, not for Mad Lab, but for the idea of what L.A. coffee needs to be for the community. In 2020, everything on Sunset had shut down or pulled out, and that space opened up. That window’s been serving specialty coffee to Hollywood for a very, very long time, almost 20 years. It was one of the first specialty places in Los Angeles. We moved in because, even though it was the middle of the pandemic and the uprisings, the neighborhood still deserved to be served. Because for me, coffee is a sense of normalcy. Coffee has that ability to do that, to let you know everything’s going to be okay. There’s a safeness about it. We showed up for our neighborhood, and our neighborhood said, “Wow, okay, these people are really about what they preach.” Most of our customer base at Hollywood are people that we served coffee to during the pandemic. A lot of them don’t even live in the area anymore, but they go out of their way to come to Mad Lab. And it’s because of the relationships that we made with the neighborhood. It’s simple. You like coffee? Dude, so do I. Let’s enjoy it together.
Who has been the biggest influence on Mad Lab’s growth?
I think it’s the people that said, “Oh here’s this dude trying to deliver coffee off of a bike, let me take a chance on this kid.” I can directly say the reason that Mad Lab was able to grow was because people took a chance on me. Anybody who saw value in what we were doing before there was value in it. Wolf’s one of those people. Wolf started off as a customer. And in spring 2019 he’s like I like what you’re about. Can I do this with you? And he’s been doing it with me ever since. He’s just been that kind of person that I can ask what do you think and he can give me a non-coffee answer. And I’ve appreciated that. Rob is another one of those people who saw the quality and value of what we were already doing and what we were trying to accomplish. He’s been one of our biggest cheerleaders and has helped us accomplish a lot of our vision for coffee in L.A. He’s been a great partner and advocate for the Mad Lab Coffee brand. There’s Sarah, who would get home off a flight and the first thing we’d have to do is go straight to the roastery and bag and tag. Or go roast. She’s been in there in the late nights and the early mornings, when I’ve been too sick to do anything. She deserves a lot of the credit.
Where did the name come from?
I was set up in that basement, right? I was trying to figure out coffee at this time, so the only way I knew how to do that is with the little bit of background I know on organic chemistry and agriculture. And so I have test tubes set up, beakers, I’m like okay how do I figure out everything longhand. And the whole place was just messy. Things boiling, things on fire, things like the stupid toaster sample roaster. And this friend comes down to the basement and goes, “Oh, man, dude, you’re a mad scientist down here, my guy. It’s like your laboratory. Dude, it’s like a mad lab. It’s like a mad lab! It’s dope!” And I was like Mad Lab. I can do that.