Over the past three years, wherever there has been a coffee competition to be found, it’s entirely possible that Steve Cuevas was there, often on the podium.
The U.S. Cup Tasters Champion in 2017, among other titles, Cuevas is now the head roaster for Black Oak Coffee Roasters, a specialty roaster based in the small town of Ukiah, California. In between shifts, Cuevas has actively tapped the coffee competition circuit to help boost his own professional profile, and that of his company.
Founded in 2012 by Keith Feigin and Jon Frech, Black Oak has seen a number of recent successes on the local, regional and national competition stages, including being named the overall winner at the Golden Bean North America competition for the past two years running, and Ukiah’s Business of the Year in 2017. In the same year, both Frech and Black Oak’s Thomas Chandler placed into the finals of the U.S. Brewers Cup and Cup Tasters Championships, respectively. The company also claimed first place in Coffee Fest‘s America’s Best Espresso competition.
Prior to joining the Black Oak team in 2014, most of Cuevas’ time in the industry was spent as a barista, experimenting with espresso extraction and flavor in various coffee shops in the Bay Area. After a spontaneous visit to Ukiah that included a memorable shot of espresso from Black Oak, Cuevas applied there to work the register. Two years later, Cuevas was at the helm a Probat UG15.
“When I want to learn a skill, I put my head down and get to work,” Cuevas told Daily Coffee News. “My goal is never to be perfect, but to always achieve excellence. Be your best every day and you’ll end up somewhere further than you started.”
Cuevas credits Barista Guild of America‘s long-running event, Barista Camp, as being a pivotal experience in his coffee career. There he found inspiration from instructors such as multiple-time U.S. Brewers Cup Champion Todd Goldsworthy of Klatch Coffee, located just north of Cuevas’ hometown in the Inland Empire.
Cuevas was soon promoted to head barista and trainer for Black Oak, while at the same time he began off-the-clock training on in sample roasting.
“I got the hang of it real quick,” said Cuevas. “Within four months, I was sample roasting, after which I moved up to using our 1957 Probat UG15. About eight months into roasting I entered Golden Bean. I didn’t think much about it, since I figured there would be no way someone who has been roasting for such a short time would even place. We ended up winning first place in Pour Over and Single Origin.”
Mere months later, Cuevas had won first place in the 2017 U.S. Cup Tasters Championship.
“My main goal was to bring attention to Black Oak Coffee and to our town of Ukiah,” Cuevas said. “Along with the national coffee competitions, I have done in-house cup tasters and roasting competitions, and made it to the U.S. Aeropress Championship in Los Angeles, in addition to every single latte art competition I can drive to.”
All this competition and networking experience has taken Cuevas on coffee-related excursions to Guatemala, Brazil, Budapest, and he’ll soon be heading to Australia. The roaster has also been engaging in education-related industry events.
“I feel I have learned from other roasters, so I find it to be my duty to help roasters through the fog that is roasting,” said Cuevas. “The more you learn through others’ experiences and mistakes, the faster the learning curve.”
One of Cuevas’ key pieces of advice for roasters is to be willing to listen to customers, and provide the product that they actually want. For Black Oak, that has meant maintaining a medium/dark and French roast offering.
“A company like Starbucks is successful because it doesn’t shoot itself in the foot by having an ego about it,” Cuevas said. “I feel roasters in San Francisco could be even more successful if they would listen their customers, but I understand they have their vision and it will not be compromised.”
Cuevas pointed to the success of companies like Sudden Coffee in reaching segments of the market that many third wave cafes have missed out on — simply by making the brewing process so accessible.
Said Cuevas, “The most difficult thing to do, but important, is to control the experience the consumer has with your coffee.”
Three Questions with Steve Cuevas
What inspires you most about coffee?
I like to tell people, “I can’t draw, so I roast coffee.” I’ve done a lot different jobs, such as landscaping, woodworking, and farming. What I felt they had in common was they are all art-based, using different mediums to achieve a goal. They are also semi-anonymous work — being able to stand back and take a look at your work while others enjoy it, but not having to tell everyone, “I roasted that!” or “That rockscape… that was all me.” Be proud of the work you do, but humble if people notice it was you working on it.
The last three years have brought me around the world, and awesome people into my life. I just don’t have enough time to express what coffee really means to me, but I hope it shows in the care I take in my roasting.
What troubles you most about coffee?
The C-market. We are really starting to hear about the struggles that coffee farmers are facing, because the market price dropped under $1 recently, making news headlines. Like everything else, though, once it’s off the news cycle, I worry it may be forgotten, too. What’s the answer? I don’t know. I feel lost and I read what people are saying we should do, but I’m not sure how much we have even accomplished, or how much longer it will take.
What would you be doing if it weren’t for coffee?
Sleeping! But seriously, I would be doing something with my hands. Probably a bicycle mechanic. I love how simple a bike can be, but how expressive of someone’s personality it can be if done up right — just take a look at scraper bikes in the east bay, or the San Francisco fixed gear bike movement.