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3 Things We Learned from George Howell of Terroir Coffee

December 14, 2010

George Howell's Terroir Coffee hosted a cupping this past weekend at Boston University.


Here are some insights.

By background, George is a legend in the specialty coffee business and one of the pioneers of gourmet coffee in the US.


He was at the forefront of growing the sales of gourmet coffee on the East Coast through his Boston-based cafe chain Coffee Connection.  He sold his coffee chain to Starbucks in 1994, including the trademark for Frappucino.  Thirsty Starbucks customers have been benefiting ever since from that memorable name, Frappucino.

Now George Howell is back in the game with a cafe in Newtonville MA named Taste Coffee House and a Massachusetts roasting business called Terroir Coffee.  Some notable cafes around Boston serve his coffee, including Crema in Harvard Square in Cambridge.  His coffees hold their own with the many award-winning coffees sold on ROASTe.

Hearing George talk about the current coffee culture is especially interesting because he seems to be setting out now to accomplish what he started with the Coffee Connection before it was bought by Starbucks.

3 big thoughts from my listening to George Howell:

1. The Third Wave of Coffee Roasters in the US is as much a taste sensation as it is a way to compete against the major national coffee chains.  Artissanal roasters can best compete against Starbucks and Peets with not just single-origin coffees but even single-estate coffees.  His specialty is single-estate - something he does incredibly well by traveling constantly and buying up the entire output from specific small farms.   I imagine without him saying it that as an entrepreneur he recognizes that Starbucks with its tonnage of roasting has to sell blends usually dark, or at best single-origin coffees.  It can't rely on single estates.  So the way to compete against Ernest & Julio Gallo is to sell single chateaux-ish coffees.  That is to say, single estate coffees.  And to differentiate by making it light roast and medium roast.  Then the origin character really comes through in a way that Starbucks can't match.   The national coffee chains need to roast medium / dark in order to maintain a consistent taste profile across stores over years.

These are all my impressions, not George Howell's words.  He was very complimentary about other roasters in the industry.

2. Quality processing is as important to Coffee as Wine.  One of the most critical factors that George discussed with pictures he'd taken around the world  is the importance of getting the coffee cherry (fruit) quickly stripped of its frut and mucilage -- as quckly as possible to avoid off-flavors.  For wine, grapes on the other hand doesn't require such fast processing.  The grapes can sit in the basket, or in the processing center.  But the longer the coffee sits in its cherry the longer it gets tones of berry, wildness, sometimes rottiness.  So fast high quality processing of coffee is essential.   Overall coffee cultivation, processing, drying and storage seemed more complex than for wine.

3. High quality specialty coffee is still an area of tremendous experimentation, perhaps more than wine, in its infancy.    Whereas many wine techniques were developed and solidified hundreds of year ago, specialty coffee has literally been developed only in the past 50+ years.  This means there is tremendous opportuity to experiment and improve both yield and taste.  As consumers, we'll benefit from these experiments.  Some coffee trees are cut down after 10-15 years because there's a perception that they get old.  But some farmers have cultivated the same coffee trees for 50+ years because they think the flavor improves.  Some farmers hand sort their beans.  Some farmers use machines.  Some farmers sell to cooperatives.  Some farmers sell on the open market themselves.   It is the wine equivalent of being in the Bordeaux region during Roman times -- before everything got solidified.

George Howell of course is at the forefront of this new movement to buy single-estate coffees and roast them light. This brings out the origin character.

Enjoy the coffees on ROASTe - many of them light and medium roast, and from Third Wave Roasters like Coffee Labs, Klatch Coffee and Ecco Caffe.








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