You might walk into Beam & Anchor, the welcoming and well-curated shop off Interstate, and studiously admire the patterned textiles, reclaimed industrial furniture, and gossamer wearable talismans. You might even pick up a bar of coffee soap from Maak Lab, unaware that Anoria Gilbert, one of the makers behind Maak Lab is directly above you in the airy workshop, deftly combining coconut and essential oils, in an alchemical ritual where bark blooms and Stumptown Coffee is reimagined as soap.
Anoria and her boyfriend Taylor Ahlmark moved to Portland from the desert five years ago and started making soap as a hobby, moonlighting out of their attic at night, and working full-time day jobs. It was there that Maak Labs was born. It’s grown into a full-time job for Anoria — Taylor also works at Portland favorite Tanner Goods. And it’s taken off from there — the Coffee Bar even has devoted followers in Tokyo. “With the onset of Paddler’s Coffee brewing the only Stumptown coffee in Japan, there’s been a good push in our bars of the same beans,” she says. “We began selling there last fall, and have had a steady stream of suds shipping abroad since.”
We stopped in the Maak Lab studio above Beam & Anchor and Anoria showed us how the Coffee Bar Soap is made.
Tell us a little about yourself and how you came to be a soap maker? Can you talk a bit about living and working in Portland?
Taylor & I moved to Portland from Arizona five years ago. The culture, design-focus, and greenery were big factors for us.
The first few months we loved the nature here, being such a stark contrast to the desert. We started experimenting with new plant life, finding different ways to harvest and utilize leaves, bark, blooms — and essential oils became the most interesting aspect. The steam distilled essential oils were rich in scent, and soap was the perfect utilitarian place to use it.
You source your essential oils in your soaps from a local source that has been in the oil business for years. How do you choose the oils and combinations?
We focus on essential oils that grow locally — i.e. peppermint, doug fir, lavender — all the classics of the Pacific Northwest. Coincidentally, a friend of ours grew up on an essential oil farm down in Corvallis, which has been in her family for generations, so this was a great hook up to super local oils. Our oil choices started with the basics, building up a good library of essential smells, then focusing on niche strange ingredients. Our oil combos come about pretty organically. We’ll start with an inspiration, make 10 variations of the idea, and keep honing it in with more and more specific samples. Occasionally it’s a lightning bolt moment when it all comes together, but mostly it’s about time. As essential oils combine and wear on, the blend changes, so its important to give each test a little time before calling it good or bad.
Can you tell us a bit about your process of making coffee soap?
Portland’s an obvious coffee city, and it’s something that reflects well in soap. Coffee makes a soap naturally deodorizing, the grounds are exfoliating, and it has a nice mild scent of coffee. We start with triple strength Stumptown coffee and add in espresso ground beans for scrub. The initial making process is the smelliest of all our soaps — it makes the whole upstairs smell of weed. This byproduct smell goes away after we mix, pour, and cure it, and it turns into deep notes of coffee and toasted oats.
Any other interesting / local sources you use to make your soaps with?
Juniper berries from New Deal Distillery. After they’re done making gin with the berries, they have a softer texture and rich penetrating aroma. We chop them up to use as an exfoliant in our Bridge & Burn Juniper Bar. We also get the less desirable parts of hives from bee keepers, and render out the honey for our Wax Bar. It makes the soap sweeter smelling, more moisturizing, and gives it a golden hue.
We have the dream of growing more of our own ingredients. It’s a little out of the question given our current 4′x4′ garden, but someday…
What music do you listen to while working?
Ta-Ku, Baths, Tycho, James Blake — but just as often is a podcast like Adam Carolla, Marc Maron, or This American Life.
What’s up next for you?
We have a lot of collabs underway that we’re stoked on. We’re also releasing our new candle this week, and starting in on some brand new products for next season. Our aim is to keep along the lines of scent based items.
Where can we find your soaps?
In Portland: Beam & Anchor, Tanner Goods, Bridge & Burn, Victory, Cord, Lizard Lounge
Nationally & Internationally: See our Stockist list