Welcome to 2020!
And welcome to the first Coffee Roaster of the Month for a new year. You might have never heard of the small Northern California town of Ukiah (or be able to pronounce it) but this sleepy town of just over 15,000 is crushing it when it comes specialty coffee.
I reached out to Jon Frech (CEO of Black Oak) and to Steve Cuevas (Head Roaster) to have them share more of their story. So that being said, let me introduce you to Black Oak Coffee Roasters.
Q: So who is the team behind Black Oak?
[Jon] We are from Ukiah, Ca, a small town in Mendocino County, California. Ukiah is a couple hours from the SF Bay area and is considered part of the North Coast, Emerald Triangle, Redwood country. We used to be famous for big trees, pears, hops and wine. These days we are probably most famous for our cannabis industry.
Ukiah is a great place in many ways, some of our team were born here, some of us decided to call it home.
Q: So what’s your backstory in specialty coffee?
[Jon] Our roaster, Steve Cuevas, has been in the industry for over a decade, but the rest of our team got started through Black Oak, learning as we go.
Q: Who were some of your early influences?
[Jon] The early third wave shops in the Bay Area were big influences for us, particularly Ritual Coffee. They have always sourced and roasted really fresh, bright, delicious coffees and they really enlivened the possibility of how coffee could taste. Further, their team was really generous with their time and helped us learn the industry, we are forever indebted to Eileen, Aaron, Steve, Joel and Kyle for getting us off the ground. Outside of the Bay Area, we loved the natural process coffees that Augie’s has been doing for a while now, before naturals became really popular.
Tell us a bit about the history of Black Oak Coffee Roasters
Q: How did it all begin?
[Jon] It all began with the two founders (myself and Keith Feigin) in a knitting circle and a conversation about the coffee shop in town that was going out of business.
Q: Why the name Black Oak?
[Jon] Oak trees are a keystone species in our local ecosystem. The species provides food, in the form of acorns and the leaves have evolved to condense and channel water, which helps bring much needed water into the environment, they also provide shade and shelter, and are quite pretty. We think that Black Oak Coffee Roasters plays a parallel role in our local human environment.
Q: So when did your first cafe open?
[Jon] We first opened for business in late 2012. Our cafe is located at 76 N State St, Ukiah, CA
Q: What equipment do you roast on?
[Jon] We do all of our sample roasting on a vintage three-barrel Gothot and our production roasting on a Probat UG-15 from the 1950’s.
Q: How else do you make an impact in your community?
[Jon] Many outside of Mendocino County know us for our single origin, award winning, coffee. However, in our community we really think of ourselves as part of the fabric of our town. Northern California has been ravaged by fires in the last few years and during those traumatic events cafes become community centres of sorts. We’ve tried to step up to meet our community’s needs by being open during power outages with generators and by providing free coffee and food to first responders and evacuees during disasters.
Many people’s lives have been turned upside down so we really focus on being a small positive to provide some warmth and lightness to the situation.
Q: In your opinion, what’s the specialty coffee community like in Ukiah/Northern California? What do you love?
[Jon] We mostly tie into the scene in the Bay Area, which lately has been carried by Royal Coffee and other Bay-area coffee roasters.
[Steve] The Bay Area has always been a hot spot for finding coffee but also having fun with latte art competitions, the local group Bay Area Coffee Community (B.A.C.C.) is doing a great job at building community and giving baristas something to gather around. It started with just latte art comp, but it has since moved to yoga, arts and craft, and also classes on mental health and being as a barista. If I’m not in the Bay you may also find me indulging in the coffee community of Sacramento and their group S.P.L.A.T. (Sacramento public latte art tournament).
Q: What’s the overall culture like?
[Jon] The overall culture is really great in that there are a lot of roaster, independent shops and we are starting to really change the market around customer expectations. We still have a long way to go for local brands focused on quality can replace some of the bigger national brands on store shelves and with customer decisions but you can feel the wind of change blowing a bit more than when we started 7 years ago.
Q: You’ve had some pretty tremendous success at the Golden Bean Competition, tell us more about what that has been like for you as an individual and as a company?
[Jon] We’ve done the competition for four years now and we are big fans of their approach. We aren’t a company with a lot of performers so coffees evaluated in a blind setting have been a better fit for us than the SCAA style competitions. The first year we entered, we sent in three or four entries and ended up winning two gold medals. We didn’t realize it at the time but that was rather unprecedented. The next year we got a bit more organized and thought we can win this thing. Our team roasted a killer lineup of entries and we ended up winning two years in a row. For us it’s a big validation to see our coffees so well received by the judging panels there. We put a ton of time into sourcing and roasting coffees that will be sweet, vibrant and memorable.
Q: While many in the specialty coffee community seem to know Stacey Lynden, what people might not be aware of is that she’s one of the key reasons I first got connected with you & Black Oak. She’s been a friend of mine since High School… but tell us what it’s been like competing with her recently in the Barista League? You two seem to have had quite the success as well in this.
[Steve] I’m a complete goofball, and struggle to take competing serious. It’s something I do to add more enjoyment to work. I love seeing how I stack up against others but it’s not something I need to win, hence the laid back attitude. The travel, new cities and hanging out with friends is the real reason why I do it. Most often than not, I’m under prepared. Stacey is my complete opposite, she will be training for events months out, and planning her routine up into the event, I on the other hand will only know what I’m going to do and say, the moment I’m on stage. A team with both styles sometimes creates conflict, but in the end we are both there to do what we love, and I think it shows, and is reflected on the score sheet too.
Q: So speaking of coffee, what are you drinking/enjoying right now?
[Jon] My warm weather drink of choice is flash brewed, iced, washed Ethiopian coffee. But, during the winter I really enjoy Kenyan coffees. Right now I’m loving our Kenya Rungeto Peaberry at a really high brew ratio that produces cups with 1.8-2.5 TDS.
[Steve] Right now I’m getting ready to “maybe” do Coffee and Good Spirits. So I’ve been drinking washed Ethiopia coffee old fashions, hot buttered rum with cascara and Brazil espresso. a clarified Guatemala espresso with rum, bourbon and topped with soft whip. I’m getting lost in the world of mixology and loving it.
The coffee I was able to experience from Black Oak was the COSTA RICA – LAS LAJAS NATURAL (and I must say it was amazing!) What was so special about this coffee to you? You describe it as the best Costa Rican coffee you’d ever sampled. Can you share more about this.
[Jon] Las Lajas is an amazing coffee produced by an awesome team. The farmer who produced it realized some time ago that she wasn’t going to be able to continue to make money selling coffee into commodity markets, so she educated herself on how to produce coffee that would command an international audience. To aid in this process, she built a wet-mill, but when a major earthquake stopped the mill from getting water she was forced to produce dry-process coffee, which are now some of the finest in the world.
Las Lajas is also a pretty great microcosm of the kind of coffee experience we want to share. A lot of light roasted specialty coffee can be difficult to extract or experience the tasting notes that people put on the bags. Lajas is a huge coffee, dripping with juicy fruits and bright notes that is unmistakable, almost no matter how you brew it. It’s the kind of coffee that you can’t help but notice and I think we need more coffees, whose flavor is an advertisement, or narrative for specialty coffee.
Q; Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
[Jon] Yeah, this year we decided as a company that transparent sourcing and paying for great coffee weren’t enough for us in making a difference as a company in the coffee world. We introduced two initiatives that we are really proud of. First, we partnered with World Coffee Research as part of their checkoff program. Their work is really important for the long term resilience of the supply chain so we are excited to make investments in the future of coffee.
Second, we ditched our seasonal blend and decided to create a series of seasonal single origin releases that spotlight the work of female coffee farmers. Our first release, Kenya Zawadi, features an amazing group of female producers. The coffee world, from many angles, is pretty patriarchal, and supporting female owned coffee farms is a great way to directly be an agent of change. We also created a partnership with Grounds for Health and are kicking back 10% of the profits from the project to support their unique cervical cancer screening and treatment program. Their organization literally turns this money into lives saved in coffee producing regions. It’s amazing!
Find their beans:
If you’re looking to get your hands on some beans then definitely check out their web-shop for what they’re currently roasting!
If you ever find yourself in Northern California, their cafe is located at: 76 N State St, Ukiah, CA
Thank you so much to Jon & Steve for sharing with us more about Black Oak Coffee Roasters and for being a key part in the coffee culture in Nor-Cal! Keep up the great work!