Learn more about specialty coffee legend George Howell in this exclusive, in-depth interview diving into his early years with the Coffee Connection and Cup of Excellence as well as his musings on the future of coffee.
Ray: Welcome to a special edition of Unpacking Coffee, I’m Ray.
Kandace: And I’m Kandace.
Ray: This week George Howell, elder statesman of coffee, or cold-blooded killer? We’ll find out after the break.
Ray: Welcome back.
Kandace: This is a new feature on Unpacking Coffee where we focus on individuals. Today we’re talking about George Howell, the man, the myth, the legend. So we went to SCA this year.
Ray: The Specialty Coffee Association Annual Expo in Seattle, Washington, this year.
Kandace: Right, and we’ve had a chance to try George Howell’s coffee, but I also got to take a class from George, and he was showing us the difference between stale coffees and bright coffees using his green coffee freezing innovation. There’s a huge difference.
George Howell is an innovator. So last week we’ve talked about George Howell coffee.
Ray: This week we’re talking about George Howell the personality.
George: I get very excited about things, whether it’s art or coffee or whatever, and I have a deep need to share.
The Coffee Connection
George: We opened the first one, was a great choice, in the middle of Harvard Square, so the students are coming every which way and through, and we became an overnight sensation.
April 9, 1975. I remember I almost burned all the hair on my head off the first day we roasted. We learned the hard way. We had the fire department come in several times over the first several months, and this cloud would go up and on a particular low atmospheric day the cloud would descend on the building next to us. The next thing we know the fire department was there with their axes.
Every roast, I remember I’d brew a cup in an automatic machine and drink the cup to see what the next roast would be like, that’s how it started.
I needed to prove to people that we were roasting coffee, so we posted the roast date on every single barrel and on every bag and made that point that the coffee was roasted and we roasted several times a week. That’s in 1975, decades before others were doing it. The fact that we were trying, that we had more information than anywhere else and these cool coffee makers that were on the shelving and such, just people loved it. And they flocked to the Coffee Connection.
When I sold the Coffee Connection to Starbucks in ’94, it was sort of a relief. We saw Starbucks coming at us like a freight train. We were gearing up for that.
Cup of Excellence
There were five countries, right, and I was the consultant for just one of them. Brazil. Gift from the skies to me, because Brazil was the most looked down upon country for coffee. Although many specialty people sold it, but it was a blender and that kind of thing.
Brazil is 30-35% of the world’s production. They have the most professional people in the business. So I was gifted with a person called Silvio Leite, who was spectacular. Everything was a well-oiled machine.
Cup of Excellence really was spending those two years traveling and seeing a lot of farmers, talking to them. Brazil’s like 95% the size of the United States, vast areas, so you’re driving for days, sometimes.
Going to these different fairs and speaking to hundreds of farmers at a time about quality, a lot of Brazilian farmers kinda laughed at me and said, “You Americans, you talk a big game, you talk all quality, but you nickel and dime us to death.” Nevertheless, I was received with yawns. Or yet, “It’s better, but it’s not 25¢ better.” That is something that will be recorded in my memory forever.
That’s what came to my coming to this idea of a competition. The idea was then to bring them, invite them to Brazil to spend an entire week ensconced in a place separate from everything with a cupper, what we would have selected, we would be selecting as the best coffees Brazil has to offer.
So we brought 20 cuppers. Already we had had a national jury that had selected to 850 farm samples from a month beforehand. The way we got them was by offering them 10¢ better than the market price if they won the Cup of Excellence.
At the end of the five days, every one of those cuppers who had entered kind of like “who knows” were blown away. People who had been selling nothing but Brazils. One of them was an importer…said he had never been in a room of that kind of quality in his life before.
The whole scoring sheet for Cup of Excellence came out of reading wine books and about those competitions and such. A year into Cup of Excellence I created that sheet, which really became the model for the SCAA CQI cupping sheet today.
I did the competition piece, came up with that concept, and the great heroine in the story is Susie Spindler who, without her organization, never would’ve happened.
Susie and I would often talk about, we felt like a bridge. We were bridging producer to roaster, and then the question became, how do you sell that? What happens if a Japanese buyer and an American buyer want the same, like the first prize one? How do we sell it to them? Auction. So that’s Cup of Excellence, in a nutshell.
A Brief Interlude
Kandace: So that’s the story of George Howell before he founded George Howell Coffee. And George Howell Coffee is covered in our last episode.
Kandace: So let’s talk to George about what he sees about the future of coffee.
What do you see as the future of coffee?
George: I would like to see, in the long run, farmers become independent of roasters. There are craft-driven farmers who, even if they’re selling at a loss, have the need to produce something great. I would like to ultimately see them as equal partners, equal powers, where there truly is a give and take.
Today, we still have a paternalistic system. The whole thing, from fair trade on down is paternalistic, and we the buyers still own the market. There’s a handful of farmers that can say otherwise. We have, again, reached a kind of flat position with a few superstar coffees, again, typically the geisha variety is one of them, and now different processes are becoming involved, right? Different yeasts and who knows what else, so specialty coffee is expanding and not only improving the quality of coffee and working with farmers, but also going in 50 different detours and different directions at once.
Kandace: So it was an absolute thrill to meet George Howell and tell you a little bit about his story.
Ray: Uh huh. So we’ll see you on the next episode.
Kandace: Happy birthday, Ray.