George Howell Coffee
From roast dates to the frappuccino, George Howell has been innovating in coffee for over 40 years. Today, we talk to George and Jenny Howell about the foundation and future of Boston’s George Howell Coffee where single origin coffees are sought with care and coffee itself is treated with the reverence of wine. From almost setting fire to a roaster to freezing coffee, join us as we head to the La Marzocco Café in Seattle to hear George and Jenny Howell give an insider’s view.
Ray: I’m Ray.
Kandace: I’m Kandace.
Ray: Welcome to Unpacking Coffee. This week …
Kandace: George Howell Coffee from Massachusets. Greater Boston.
Music: Said George Howell knows his coffee, George Howell, he loves his coffee. George Howell. George Howell. George Howell. I said …
Kandace: So Ray …
Kandace: George Howell Coffee was founded in 2004 by Laurie and guess … George Howell. But we’re not even gonna talk about that now. Let’s talk about George Howell Coffee.
Ray: So we drove up to Seattle to speak with George Howell the CEO and Jenny Howell, Director of Coffee Sourcing and Development.
A brief history
George: I’m a coffee guy who loves coffee and the exploration of it.
George: I’m never happy with where I am today. I’m George Howell and I own the George Howell Coffee Company in Greater Boston. I’ve been around for 40 plus years. I was exhibiting Indian art from Mexico, Huichol art, for a number of years in the early 70’s.
Moved to Boston and the coffee is dreadful. I had to exhibit the art that I was exhibiting which was very difficult. What better than to have a café, roast your coffee, and put the art on the walls?
The mistakes we made, we literally…I remember I almost burned all the hair on my head off the first day we roasted.
We had French Press made to order, day one as well.
Kandace: In the 70’s?
George: In the 70’s. We became an overnight sensation.
Jenny: One of the things I always loved doing was traveling.
Jenny: And that definitely started off with my dad. You know, instead of going to Disneyland, we were going to Costa Rica. We’d be in the fields breaking coffee and meeting the farmers. It was kind of in my blood.
I’m Jenny Howell, I’m the Director of Coffee Sourcing at George Howell Coffee in Boston, Mass. I really maintain a lot of relationships. I maintain relationships with the farmers that we work with, our exporters and importers that we work with.
I came home, was staying in one of their guest rooms and that was the time when he couldn’t be in the coffee business right after he’d sold to Starbucks. He was still receiving all of this green coffee and I’d wake up in the morning and there would just be like a spread of coffees to come. That’s what I did.
George: It’s always, how can I do it better? What could I find that’s new? A few years after selling it I was able to get a job as a consultant in Brazil to find a way where farmers could actually produce a better quality product but sell it for higher prices.
Tell us about the beginning of George Howell Coffee…
Jenny: At the beginning of George Howell Coffee back in the early 2000’s when he wanted to highlight the farmer and not single origin but single estate, you know, where you’re not blending different farms together but you’re really focusing on the terroir in this one specific area on this one specific hilltop.
George: I wanted to get in front and understand what it’s like to market this new concept.
George: Single farm coffees. No longer blends, away from blends. Right? Great coffee, single farm.
Jenny: To differentiate one farmer from another you really have to take one farmer and their one product and be able to taste the difference between their coffee and another farmer’s coffee.
What makes a great cup of coffee at George Howell?
Jenny: Balance, sweetness, and acidity. Definitely complexity. There’s always that what makes a coffee one of the great coffees is that last piece is complexity.
George: A complex coffee is one that is changing as you drink it and a great cup is always sweet from start to finish but has these transparencies that you can taste. One, then another, then another. Drinking a cup of coffee, a drip coffee, is like drinking a glass of wine. It’s a process. It’s a 20, 30 minute period of time that you’re drinking. That cup of coffee, very much like wine is opening over that 20 minutes.
Jenny: We’re looking to work with small undiscovered farmers or discovered farmers, you know, whatever is gonna be a great cup of coffee. Our Mamudo, our Kenya Mamudo this year is really amazing. It’s been a relationship we’ve had since 2006. We’re working with Walter, the owner, every year visiting twice a year and exchanging knowledge and trying to give them any kind of tools that they need to produce better coffee.
What is the future of George Howell Coffee?
Jenny: We kind of see the future of some of our cafés as like a fine wine store where you can pick a vintage out from any different year.
George: But people think we mean aged and we don’t. You have coffees coming from the northern hemisphere and those coming from the southern hemisphere so it’s twice a year that you really get these coffees. Every coffee starts to age immediately. It’s already aging as it gets to you. Some change very quickly. It’s a little bit like having a beautiful color photograph in a sunlit room. A year later it’s going towards sepia. That was my problem. It may be seasonal in May but is it really seasonal in July and I still have it? And what about August? I can say it’s seasonal but it may already be dreadful.
So we started freezing coffee and then we just take out what we need for a few weeks and we roast that. I’m able to serve it at any time of the year I want. Then there are those where Jenny and I and others feel, “Wow, this coffee, I don’t know when we’re gonna get a crop like this again” so we hold back several hundred pounds and hopefully a thousand more as we get bigger and we can get more. Then we might hold it for several years. What’s more fun than on a special Christmas or New Year’s or whatever it is say, “Hey, let’s bring some in, unfreeze it, roast it, and voila!”
This isn’t the end, my friend…
Ray: You know what, Kandace? I think we should do another show in two weeks profiling George Howell.
Kandace: I mean, we’ve never done anything like that before. Can we just make another show?
Ray: Yeah, come back in two weeks. Or you know what? If two weeks have passed just immediately go and watch the new show.
Ray: So this episode is coming out right before the SCA event in Seattle and right now you can catch George Howell’s coffee and maybe the man himself at the La Marzocco Café.
Zoé: What’s your favorite memory of going to work with your dad?
Jenny: Well, that would have to be when I went to Costa Rica when I was 10 years old with him. When we wasn’t working we would be swimming in the ocean riding waves. Have you ever ridden a wave? Where you start swimming and then the wave picks you up?
Jenny: It’s really fun. You’ve got to try it. Yeah, he taught me how to do that and it’s one of my favorite things still to do today.
Zoé: Thank you for being on the show.
Jenny: Thank you for having me.