Did you have another career in mind before coffee? If so what?
I did have another career in mind. Murky vision may be a better way to express what was in mind at the time. Back in the sixties, many of us “kids” were not thinking so much about careers as we were about changing the world.
The story below is about the art that has been hanging at my cafes since 1975 when I opened The Coffee Connection, and which can be seen at our Downtown Crossing café (showing two works by Jose Benitez Sanchez) as well as Newtonville (4 works by Tutukila). That comprised my first career.
While at Yale in the early sixties, I gravitated towards the arts–music, painting, and literature. I spent many weekends in New York City going to avant-garde jazz concerts at night (John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler….), and visiting art galleries and museums in the day. I was not so driven to create as to absorb and discover what others communicated in unimagined ways. I was struck with awe and wonder by the unfolding discoveries my eyes and ears received. At one point I financed, with the little money I had, and promoted jazz artists Milford Graves and Don Pullen to give a concert at Yale. I was already gravitating toward showing others what I was discovering. (Sound familiar?) My co-conspirator was Juan Negrin. We had become fast friends in Mexico City where I grew up as a teenager and later went to Yale together. Juan was already a driven artist and thinker of great originality. That is another story…. But what he did next would alter my trajectory in this world.
In the early seventies Juan became involved with the Wixarika people in the Central Sierra Madre of Mexico. It started with their art that was being exhibited in Guadalajara. These were the early days of “yarn paintings”. They were made by pressing colored yarn, a single strand at a time, into softened beeswax laid over a wooden panel. They were about the mythological stories of people popularly called the Huichol – a name given to the Wixarika (x is pronounced like a cross between and soft J and sh) by the West. He went to the city of Tepic where yarn paintings were becoming ubiquitous in a growing number of tourist stores selling indigenous crafts. There, he found a handful of artists who were producing originals that were then copied by craftsmen and sold in stores. He challenged them to return to their roots to create meaningful art with ever deeper expressions of their religion, not to be confused with folklore! This meant going back into the mountains, committing to religious pilgrimages, and learning from established shamans more deeply about their religion. Juan then followed them to the mountains and began deepening his relationship with the Wixarika culture.
By that time, Laurie and I had moved to the San Francisco bay area where Juan was living. Juan began bringing back the yarn paintings he had bought to the San Francisco Bay area. I was blown away by the originality and vitality of the art I saw. There were four artists to begin with, and it was easy to tell their styles apart. With year each artist evolved, developing a unique, ever expanding visual language and greater thematic depth as they participated in the life and rituals of their culture. Here was a living art brimming with beauty and extraordinary individual creativity
I spent the next few years working in a local art gallery in Berkeley near the University campus, explaining the Wixarika works that Juan was bringing back from his long visits to their territory. This culminated when I set up and “curated” a Masterworks exhibit at the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery in January 1974. The “Masterworks” were what he deemed the most important paintings, held back from sale to be exhibited in museums as ambassadors of the complex Wixarika culture and testaments to their artistic visions.
As soon as the show ended, Laurie and I departed in a used Volvo station wagon with two children in tow and a third on the way, headed for Boston. We were going to visit a friend and then presumably return to Yale to finish my studies; it never happened. Every morning we stopped for breakfast on our drive to Boston. I would take my coffee stash to the men’s room, grind the beans there, and then go order hot water. I would then pour them into our French Press. We never failed to attract attention.
Within days of arriving in Boston, we had run out of the freshly roasted, quality coffee we had brought with us from the birthplace of specialty coffee. We quickly realized that Boston was a desert of brown painted pellets in bins and barrels that one ground into sawdust. It dawned on Laurie and me that there was a real opportunity to produce a thriving coffee culture here, similar to what we had experienced in the San Francisco Bay area. We could support our kids, have our coffee, and – as it would turn out, become a beacon of Wixarika art that would, in some small measure, help their culture weather its challenges to existence and successful evolution
We knew nothing about coffee and there was no one on the East Coast who could act as a mentor. We reached out to the pioneering green coffee importer Erna Knutsen in San Francisco for our first green coffee beans. She helped us get a used coffee roaster from Germany. Over the next thirteen years we would buy 90% of our beans from her and ship them by truck from San Fransisco to Boston at considerable extra expense. She was that much better than anyone else.
Our first café opened in April 1975 in the heart of Harvard Square. We learned how to roast on our own through trial and errors, plural – and there were a lot of them. But the public mobbed us anyway. We had customers jump behind the counter to wash our dishes and refuse payment. It truly was a unique time. We were on the major TV channels within the first three months of opening. We never looked back.
And there on the walls, for all twenty years that we existed, were the yarn paintings. Our proximity to Harvard University led to several major collectors of the art, and to doors opening which brought resources to Juan Negrin’s endeavors. He went on to work with the Wixarika by forming a non-profit organization to protect their environment, and to introduce small community industries making looms and furniture from their forests as a working alternative to timber interests bent on clearcutting. The Coffee Connection was a magnet that enabled Juan to receive aid from Cultural Survival, and through them, Bread for the World. It led to exhibitions at Harvard University and Northeastern University. A major European tour was arranged by someone coming through our café. Finally, in 1986, the four great Wixarika artists that Juan worked with were exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in Mexico City, a great milestone where indigenous artists were normally treated as folk art only.
What is the story behind the first coffee farm you partnered with?
We do not have partnerships, strictly speaking. We have relationships; A few are short-lived and others evolve into relationships that are more deeply rooted. They are always based on quality. Many years ago we decided our first commitment was to our customers: we promise them top quality coffees and that is what we will deliver. Sometimes we will get an outstanding sample from an importer, farmer, or from a competition like The Cup of Excellence and buy the coffee. We then hope to purchase that coffee again, but only if the sample is really good. We will visit that farm during its next harvest and assess the quality. If we are still buying from that farm three years later, we are clearly forming a relationship based on trust that each is committed to quality.
Some relationships end because the farmer has retired and no one younger follows in her footsteps. This was the case with one farmer in Colombia; She produced a Caturra that was extraordinary in its sweetness and complexity. She retired, her kids switched away from Caturra, and the quality we sought was gone. Another farmer who won the Cup of Excellence produced very high quality for several years, but as he grew, he moved from focusing on the traditional Caturra variety towards more productive, disease resistant hybrids. The Caturras became more generic. When we asked that the lots, which we were not in love with but definitely interested in, be separated by variety so we could assess each, the family refused. End of relationship.
Other relationships have become very solid. La Minita is a large farm I have been buying from since 1988 when I had The Coffee Connection. We are still quite a small roaster and are one of its many buyers. La Soledad, in Guatemala, a medium-sized farm, is another prime example. We have 100% trust based on many years of purchasing. We bring staff members there each year for them to learn and see for themselves. This is a prime example of the next generation enthusiastically leading the family farm tradition to new heights. Raul and Jose, the two sons of Henio and Mercedes Perez, have built a cupping room and analyze every lot they produce. In both cases we are still assiduous in cupping individual lots to find the gems.
The closest we have come to a partnership, but with no strings attached, is with Mamuto in Kenya. If ever a coffee farm deserved the name “Grand Cru” this is the one. For four years we have been contributing to their infrastructure. In 2017, owners Walter and Abishagi, announced their retirement. They passed the farm onto their three sons: Jason, Patrick, and Peter Mathagu. The past two harvests have been disastrous; Two years ago a fungal disease called “Coffee Berry Disease” struck twice in two weeks, followed by a very rare night of freezing temperatures. Their volume went down to 20%. What was left, at least, was very good quality. This past harvest was worse. Rains were unrelenting during a time that was supposed to be dry, drastically affecting the maturation of the coffee and, even more so, the drying of the beans. Once again, the crop was reduced to near nothing. The shipment is currently on its way to us. We continue to contribute, even with our cafes closed.
As we grow our relationships will continue to expand and evolve. We believe in putting farms front and center and that will continue to be our mission. That is why we only have one blend, Alchemy. But here we are at another topic – for future discussion!
Has anything to your knowledge ever scored a perfect 100 at Cup of Excellence?
Never has a Cup of Excellence international jury altogether scored any coffee a perfect 100. At the Brazil CoE competition last October, however, a single juror, Silvio Leite, did give a 100 score to the coffee that turned out to be the #1 prizewinner. The coffee that garnered the top prize at 92.23 points hailed from farmer André Luis Aguila Ribeiro of the Pai e Filho farm. This coffee finished just slightly above #2 at 92.15. Silvio is one of the best cuppers I know, and this particular competition, in my opinion, had a strong, unified jury with exceptional ability.
A 100 pt score by even a single juror is an exceedingly rare event. Silvio has been a head judge since CoE’s inception in 1999; it was the first time he gave 100 points to a coffee. A coffee has to be remarkable to be a Presidential winner by getting 90 or over points. Some CoE competitions have no scores of 90 or over.
Juries are composed of twenty-four jurors from around the world. While they are often in overall agreement about the great ones, there are always variations in the scoring. I think the highest score ever given by a jury was around 96 – which is amazing, given its diversity. A 96 given by one jury in one country may not be the equal of a coffee given a 92 in another competition at another time by a different jury. Every international jury has its team of cuppers with their experiences, their preferences, and their customers’ preferences.
Juries vary quite a bit. For the first time a Cup of Excellence (CoE) jury cupped randomly ordered Pulped Naturals, Naturals and Anaerobic Natural processed lots on the same tables. In the past, the competitions separated the processes to allow jurors to compare “apples to apples.” I frankly expected the Anaerobic Natural and Natural coffees to crush the more delicate, far less fruity Pulped Naturals. But more subtle traditional Pulped Naturals held their own, taking 3rd, 7th and 9th place in the top ten.
Jurors at a CoE event cup 10 coffees at a time, spending 45 minutes in verbal silence and inchoate slurping from hot to room temperature. They then go into a separate room and compare scores and notes while the next set of tables are prepared. Not all juries agree. A few years ago, there were a few juries that became very divided between those wanting coffees with classical, clean flavors and those preferring wildly fruity cups. My recent Brazil experience makes me think we are evolving for the better as we learn from each other and discover facets in our examinations and discussions that broaden our appreciation.
May 3, 2020
Greetings from George Howell
I finally have time to write for our newsletter, something I used to do but found ever more difficult as the complexity of running George Howell Coffee grew. Life has simplified for the time being and this has enabled me to change some of my priorities. I am refocusing on writing about the world I represent. It is one of the few but critical silver linings for me during these difficult days. I will use the newsletter to comment on the coffees we offer, on events shaping farmers lives and on many other themes involving coffee. I am also giving brief answers to questions you might have every Tuesday on Instagram which will subsequently be posted in our blog. To ask me a question, simply send a direct message to our Instagram account @ghowellcoffee and we will do our best to answer all of them!
Also a big thank you to our customers for their continued support especially during this crazy time. You are keeping us positively energized and we are deeply grateful. We hope you and your loved ones are healthy and safe!
Update on New Crop Coffee Arrivals This Harvest Season
The Northern Hemisphere coffee harvest season is ending. It began around November 2019 at lower altitudes, peaked in January-February, and has been tapering off in March with some extremely high-altitude coffees still coming in. Here is a quick rundown by region:
Central America: The harvests were exceptionally good; the weather was kind during the nine months since flowering. Farmers just made it through the bulk of the harvest before the coronavirus began to strike with full force. Shipping seems good with few glitches so far. Fingers crossed!
We are already expecting to see our El Salvador Matalapa arrive next week. Our other Central American coffees will be shipping in about two weeks. We have just finished cupping many samples and are very happy with the quality of the lots we have chosen from Matalapa, Montecarlos, Pulcal, La Soledad and La Bendición.
La Minita from Costa Rica is also about to arrive. It is a pioneering, quality coffee I have carried since the days of The Coffee Connection. In another month, our regional Costa Rica Tarrazu will come in, offering a high value, high-grown classic regional coffee.
The Panama Geshas typically arrive later and are equally promising. We have already cupped the La Deborah micro-lots and are thrilled. Expect this new crop to appear around July. In the meantime, we continue to offer last year’s La Deborah as one of our limited roasts. It is in pristine condition thanks to our frozen storage of green coffee—more expensive, but we believe in putting our dollars where our mouth is–quality comes first! The renowned La Esmeralda Gesha should come around the same time. We are looking forward to cupping it.
East Africa: The harvest is always a little earlier in Ethiopia and Kenya than in Central America.
We have bought a large lot from the Guduba wet mill in the Guji area of South Western Ethiopia, arriving this month. We were thrilled with it last year, and the new crop is, if anything, still better. This Guji stands out as a medium-bodied, highly floral, Muscat-scented coffee.
Kenya, on the other hand, suffered much heavier rains caused by the Indian Ocean Dipole during its entire harvest. This greatly affected production of many farms, making picking coffee difficult and less productive, as coffee cherries ripened very quickly. The problem was compounded by the difficulty of evenly drying the beans after processing, often resulting in lower quality.
I traveled to Kenya in November 2019 as this difficult harvest was getting underway and visited the Karatu Cooperative wet mill on my way to Mamuto. We have been buying their coffee for several years and been impressed by their consistent quality. Upon arriving, I was struck by seeing a structure common in Colombia (which has intermittent rains throughout their harvests) but for the first time in Kenya; it was a thick, translucent plastic-covered tunnel structure allowing air to circulate, entering from one side and exiting the other. This keeps the coffee safe from rainfall, diminishes humidity within, and promotes even drying. Their coffee was the best we cupped from Kenya this year. Our purchase should arrive next month.
We are currently offering a limited roast of a glorious 2018 Karatu lot.
Mamuto was devastated by the rains, suffering a 75% drop in production. It should arrive in early May. We will cup it upon arrival, as we do with all our coffees and give a report then. No farm or cooperative in our experience has produced the kind of outstanding quality year after year as has Mamuto. They are a true “Grand Cru” coffee.
Roast dates and the right time to brew
November 12, 2018
Back in the 1980s, and even 1990’s, the answer to “when is the right time to brew?” seemed simple: immediately after roast! Indeed, my Coffee Connection was the first in the US to post roast dates on our barrels (we were scooping back then!) and on our bags. Many of our customers wanted to buy our coffee roasted the previous day and no later. Then the one-way valve bag arrived, becoming common practice in the 1990s. It allowed us to preserve complete freshness longer, although many of our very well-trained customers had lingering doubts….
The new millennium brought us to new levels of understanding, as Third Wave lighter roast, single farm coffees entered the market. In just a few years there were farmer quality competitions in many countries of origin. Refining the craft of brewing the best cups of coffee became a passion wherever third wave cafes opened, giving rise to regional, national and world title barista and brewer competitions. Precision instruments were developed to measure proper extraction ratios and strength, giving rise to superior results at cafes and at home; we are NOT talking about the k-cup!
These days, the international barista consensus for brewing the “best-a-coffee-can-be” is for that coffee to have rested for about a week, when sealed in one-way valve bags. Otherwise the intense release of carbon dioxide from freshly ground beans interferes with proper flavor-extraction. Coffee stays at peak in one-way sealed bags for about three weeks after roasting, with gradual degradation after that. At three months degassing is complete and quality falls off a cliff.
Once you open a bag of fresh beans, reseal and freeze the remaining beans immediately! For more on this see Issue No. 2!
– George Howell
August 24, 2018
Kenya SL28 varietals are one of the great coffees of the world; there are no other varietals or origins, in my opinion, that can claim to be superior. No other coffee in the world swells so amply with deep, clean, velvety dark fruit flavor, filling one’s mouth like a fine full-bodied red wine. There is no better Kenya representative, year after year, than Mamuto, which we are proud to have been offering since 2006. It must be taken black, to be appreciated to its fullest.
This year’s Mamuto harvest is a masterpiece. It arrived very late, however, and has a patina of age (cedar wood note). As always there are three offerings of Mamuto: AA, AB and Peaberry, representing different sizes and shapes, for even, controlled roasts. The AA is the largest bean; it is most carefully sorted for removal of defects, and tends to be the most uniformly ripe. In a great year, as this one is, the AB’s can be nearly equal in quality, and are a great value. Peaberries are formed at the tips of a coffee tree’s branches, where some fruits produce only one seed (bean); these beans take on round shapes. They are sorted by specially shaped sieves and represent a tiny percentage of the crop. Some people prefer them for their typically brighter acidity.
Great harvests are often a result of smaller yields. There are half the Mamuto AA’s of the previous year and only a few hundred pounds of peaberry. We will be spreading these out as Limited Roasts until April 2019, when we expect the new crop to arrive. We have far more AB’s, which will be roasting every week, and they are delicious!
– George Howell
Discover genuine iced coffee for the first time. You’ve
probably never had a good one!
August 3, 2018
The window for enjoying a properly brewed great coffee is fleeting. A great cup has a life span of 20 to 30 minutes (Sprudge video) before its complex chemistry begins to disassemble into murkier realms. To make a great Iced Coffee, that magic moment must be captured on the spot.
Brewed coffee that has been cooled in the refrigerator is dead on arrival. Making a coffee extract to compensate for the dilution when ice cubes are added requires less water and too much coffee, resulting in under-extracted, thin and astringent flavors. And cold brew, being made with cold water, is flat, muddy and sour in comparison to a genuine iced coffee. A really good iced black coffee is, above all, surprisingly sweet and thirst-quenching.
You can now make genuine perfect iced coffee at home. For several years we have sold stainless steel “ice” cubes, to be kept in the freezer, ready to chill hot coffee. But now the ColdWave has arrived. It has ninety water-filled rods that, once immersed in just-brewed hot coffee, will cool 16 oz to 41˚ F in one minute flat. This is a perfect temperature for iced. The ice cubes will melt very slowly resulting in a surprisingly sweet thirst-quenching beverage. For an excellent review of this product see the video by 2007 World Champion Barista James Hoffman, one of the best independent spokespersons for quality coffee I know. The ColdWave is available at our cafés and on our website.
As James Hoffman points out, the ColdWave is for home use and cannot be used in cafes. Now, however, comes the ColdWave for commercial use, and George Howell Coffee is proud to premier this product at our café at the Godfrey Hotel in Downtown Crossing and at Boston Public Market. It takes one extra minute to give you a new experience. Please come by and try it!
– George Howell
Freezing Roasted Coffee
June 28th 2018
It is striking how many specialty coffee companies recommend NOT freezing your roasted coffee. They are wrong.
I have found that just one day after I have opened a bag of coffee, thereby exposing it to oxygen, it has lost much of its dimensionality; it is a shadow of that first glorious day – assuming it was a great coffee, perfectly roasted to begin with!
You cannot simply put it in a container and remove the oxygen as if it were a wine: carbon dioxide pours out of fresh coffee, eliminating any sealed vacuum you may have started with. Keeping it cool and dry does nothing to stop the already oxygen-contaminated coffee from becoming zombified. But take a thick zip-lock bag, place the beans in it, squeeze most of the air out, and freeze it on the spot and you stop all transactions cold. Our coffee bags already have a zip lock; there is no need to transfer.
Next day: grind the coffee right away, the colder the better! The colder the beans are, the more brittle they are, and the more evenly they grind. That’s what the 2017 USA Barista Champion did with his espresso beans! His professional jurors were more than convinced.
Brew immediately after; no need to wait. All our single-pour coffees are kept frozen at our café in Downtown Crossing. If you want some of your roasted coffee to be around for over a couple of weeks, vacuum the coffee in a pouch and freeze it. Enjoy!
– George Howell
The Northern Hemisphere Harvest Arriving Now
June 11, 2018
New crop coffees are beginning to pour in from all the Northern Hemisphere producing countries. These harvests have taken place over the months of November to March. The higher the elevation the later the harvest.
Expect the new Kenya Mamuto to be in at the end of the month – and available in early July. The good news: the AA are extraordinary – intense and very sweet. However, the amount of AA (slightly larger beans than ABs and more perfectly mature) will be even less than last year. We will also have some other Kenyas that struck us as exceptional.
Another highlight is the batch of Ethiopian coffees arriving. We have already started the new harvest with Yukro from Jimma, a sweet, syrupy Ethiopian coffee that features a delicate anise accent. We also have the great Duromina from the same region, which we will offer later this year. They are exceptional. After Borboya’s no-show last year (political disruption and quality issues) we will have a very big lot of it back: very floral, sweet complex coffee! Also, another Yirgachaffe – Sakaro will debut next month; it is equally exquisite. Overall a great quality harvest for Ethiopia and particularly this renowned Ethiopian region.
And finally, we have bought a micro lot of naturally processed Gesha Village from Ethiopia. This is an extraordinary lot; the fruity notes from natural processing (drying the cherries over week), so often overwhelming, are subdued enough to meld perfectly with the more delicate varietal-terroir notes. This produces what we consider to be a really complex unique coffee. Such a perfect balance may be due to the unique ideal weather conditions during harvest this year.
– George Howell