Cartel Coffee Lab, Phoenix Sky Harbor

A decat cortado at Cartel Coffee Lab at Terminal 4, Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport.I’ve already sung the praises of Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport, which is one of the best (large) airports I’ve had the pleasure of flying into/out of in recent years. Unsurprisingly, a big part of its charm (for me, at least) is that it has a branch of Cartel Coffee Lab past security in Terminal 4. The first two times I flew to/from Phoenix (late 2016, early 2017), it was closed by the time I got to the airport, but since then Cartel has extended its hours, so on my first of two 2018 visits to Phoenix, I was able to call in both when I arrived on a Monday morning and left, almost two weeks later, on a Sunday night.

Since it’s at an airport, Cartel would be forgiven for running a cut-down operation, but no, not Cartel. Instead, you are treated to the full Cartel range, which includes six single-origins (one decaf), one of which is available on espresso, while all six are available as pour-over via a combination of Aeropress, V60, Clever Dripper and Chemex. There’s also the obligatory bulk-brew, while you can buy bags of the beans (and even a Chemex!) to take home (or on your flight) with you.

You can read more of my thoughts after the gallery.

  • A welcome sight for a traveller/speciality coffee fan: Cartel Coffee Lab at Phoenix airport.
  • The layout is fairly simple, and is set up for takeaway customers. You start on the left...
  • ... where you file past a fairly standard grab-and-go cabinet full of food.
  • Except, wait! What's that at the front? Bags of coffee? Yes! Plus you can buy a Chemex!
  • There's pretty much the full Cartel range on offer.
  • In case you missed it, past the Grab & Go section, there's another selection of coffee.
  • Next stop, right at the back, is the till, where you order.
  • You then file back out on the other (right-hand) side to collect your coffee.
  • On your way, you pass the espresso machine, and the baristas, of course.
  • The first photo was on my arrival in Phoenix, while this one is when I left, two weeks later.
  • Next you file past the pour-over station. Yes, that's right. Pour-over. At an airport!
  • Finally, you get to the right-hand end of the counter, where you wait for your coffee.
  • Due to the interesting layout, you get a great view of the pour-overs being made...
  • ... while if you have good eyesight, you can also watch the espresso shots being pulled.
  • Once again, the previous photo was from my first visit, while this is from my departure.
  • If you're not rushing off to catch a flight, there's even (a small amount) of seating.
  • As I mentioned, Cartel offers a full pour-over service, which is impressive.
  • The menu, meanwhile, is on the wall at the back, above/behind the till...
  • ... with the choice of beans, all single-origins (top one is on espresso) is on the counter.
  • On my arrival, I had a latte in my Therma Cup to celebrate my return to Phoenix.
  • Sadly I couldn't linger as I had to collect my bags from the carousel.
  • On my departure, I had longer, so was able to watch the espresso being made.
  • Almost done...
  • ... and with a flourish, the paddle is flicked to the right and we're done.
  • Next step, steam the milk (I was having a cortado).
  • And here it is, my decaf cortado (I was planning on sleeping on the plane).
  • I'll leave you with the lovely latte art...
  • ... which lasted all the way to the bottom of the glass, always a good sign.
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One of the nice things about Sky Harbor is that it welcomes local restaurants and other businesses, rather than focusing on the normal chains, an invitation which has been extended to Cartel Coffee Lab, which, as a result, has a coffee shop beyond security in Terminal 4, handy because this is the international terminal, hence is the one I most often use. Even better, it’s where I arrived when I flew in from Miami earlier this year.

Terminal 4 is arranged as a square, with the entrance/exit in the middle and the four gate areas, A through to D, around it on the corners.  Cartel is in the C Gates cluster, home of Southwest Airlines, and, annoyingly, on the opposite side of the terminal from the A Gates, where my American Airlines flight from Miami arrived. On the other hand, it’s not that far from the B Gates, home of my British Airways flights to/from London.

As you reach the gates, Cartel is on your right, very near the entrance. The layout is very simple and optimised for takeaway customers, although there is a small amount of seating if you want to stay. And, of course, this is an airport, so you can always take your coffee down to the gate if you want.

Cartel occupies a U-shaped space, with the entrance on the left, where you’ll find retail bags of coffee, along with the more traditional grab-and-go sandwich offerings. You file past here on your way to the till at the back, where you place your order, then you come back on the other side of the U, past first the espresso machine, then the pour-over station. Finally, you end up at the front on the right which is great, since it gives you the perfect view of the pour-over station, plus, if you have good eyesight (or a decent zoom lens on your camera) you can watch the espresso being extracted at the other end of the counter. And, of course, you can chat to the baristas.

The seating is also here, a simple five-person bar opposite the collection point at the end of the counter. The only downside is that you sit with your back to Cartel. On the other hand, it does mean you can watch the world go by if you like.

When I flew in from Miami, I only had time for a very quick visit since I first had to get from the other side of the terminal and was worried about leaving my bags on the carousel for too long. As a result, I ordered a latte to go in my Therma Cup, using the Carmen, a washed El Salvadorian coffee. This has classic chocolate notes that went very well in milk, a fitting way to celebrate my return to Phoenix.

When I flew out, however, I left myself plenty of time before my flight to pay Cartel a visit. Since I wanted to sleep on the flight, and had already had plenty of coffee that day, having visited Fourtillfour, Regroup and Cartel in Scottsdale, I ordered a decaf cortado using the Mexico Chiapas beans. Pleasingly, this arrived in a glass, rather than a takeaway cup, another sign of Cartel’s refusal to compromise. This was also lovely, another rich, creamy coffee, with chocolate notes and some impressively-steamed milk which held the pattern all the way to the bottom of the cup, a suitable send-off before my flight.

December 2018: Cartel Coffee Lab, Phoenix Sky Harbor was a runner-up for the 2018 Best Takeaway Coffee Award. Cartel has also switched to serving its pour-over only through the Chemex, with a choice of two sizes, 8oz and 16oz.

TERMINAL 4 • SKY HARBOR AIRPORT • PHOENIX • AZ 85034 • USA +1 480 621 6381
Monday 04:30 – 21:00 Roaster Cartel Coffee Lab (espresso + filter)
Tuesday 04:30 – 21:00 Seating Bar
Wednesday 04:30 – 21:00 Food Cake, Sandwiches
Thursday 04:30 – 21:00 Service Counter
Friday 04:30 – 21:00 Payment Cards + Cash
Saturday 04:30 – 21:00 Wifi Free
Sunday 04:30 – 20:00 Power No
Chain Local Visits 29th January, 11th February 2018
23rd March 2018, 22nd January 2019
11th January 2020

You can see what I made of all the other branches of Cartel Coffee Lab that I’ve visited. Also, if you enjoyed this Coffee Spot, then take a look at the rest of Phoenix’s speciality coffee scene with the Coffee Spot Guide to Phoenix.

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