Friday, February 10, 2012

The Return of George Howell

I'm very overcaffeinated right now. In fact, a mosquito bit me and immediately died of a nervous breakdown.

But the strain on my synapses was well worth the unforgettable culinary experience I had earlier this evening.

Tomorrow marks the grand opening of George Howell Coffee in Newtonville, MA. Tonight, on the eve of this event, a joyful open house was held, attended by George and Laurie Howell.

What makes these events so auspicious?

George Howell was singlehandedly responsible for Boston's coffee renaissance. Between 1975 and 1994, his chain of coffee houses, the Coffee Connection, defined good coffee drinking in the Boston area. Then in 1994, Starbucks bought the Coffee Connection. Part of the deal was that George was not allowed to open a coffee shop for ten years.

He was "retired," but of course for someone like George Howell, "to retire" means "to do even more." George traveled the world and became an even more legendary coffee guru. With his Terroir line of coffees, he was the first person to produce single-origin coffees. Great vintners have produced single-origin wines for millennia, but George was the first person to care enough about coffee beans to opine that they deserved the same respect as grapes. And while certain socially conscious coffee producers embrace "fair trade" policies, George went one step further. He does "direct trade," working directly with the growers themselves and eliminating the middle man.

One reason George could not sit still in retirement is that he didn't like the direction in which coffee was going. Starbucks popularized the overroasted coffee bean, producing some of the most robust — sometimes downright burnt — beans on the market. They explicitly stated that the more you roast a bean, the more flavorful it becomes. Seems to me that's like saying: the longer you barbecue a steak, the more delicious it becomes. After the third or fourth hour on the grill, there certainly are diminishing returns! Though I have never heard George speak of Starbucks by name, I have heard him speak many times about his preference for slightly (or more than slightly) lighter roasts. (I'll say something else about that at the end of this blog.)

In 2010, George bought the Taste Coffee House on 311 Walnut Street in Newtonville, MA. He assembled a wonderful team, with whom he started to think about the character of the place. There is a sleek, slightly Euro quality. You see the uncluttered, glistening machines, and you instantly realize that the protagonist is not the sandwiches or the d├ęcor, but the coffee itself.

For Bostonians who sorely miss the Coffee Connection, or for those who simply want the best cup of coffee to be had, tomorrow's opening has created lots of buzz. For the first time, here is a coffee house with George's personality, his innovations, his inimitable stamp — inimitable because no one in the world knows, or loves, coffee as much as George Howell.

Yesterday, I suddenly realized just how far-reaching the influence of George Howell still is over the world of coffee. I walked past a Starbucks and saw a big sign, which read, "Now Introducing Our New Blonde Roast." I immediately thought of George and took delight that even the Giant from Seattle — especially the Giant from Seattle — listens when George Howell speaks.

George Howell Coffee, 311 Walnut Street, Newtonville, MA, 617-332-6886

The following quotes about George Howell are from Wikipedia:

“The Coffee Connection was different from the competition we faced elsewhere. The sale [in 1994]… gave Starbucks immediate access to a core of well-informed coffee drinkers.”—Pour Your Heart Into It by Howard Schultz (Hyperion, 1997) on the sale of The Coffee Connection in Boston to Starbucks.

“Howell became legendary for doing anything to find clean, beautifully processed beans.”—The Joy of Coffee by Corby Kummer, senior editor of The Atlantic Monthly (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1995).

“The ultimate aesthete”—Uncommon Grounds by Mark Pendergrast (Basic Books, 1999)

“George Howell…one of the coffee world’s most knowledgeable and passionate spokesmen. I know of no one who has done more to improve the quality of American coffee, and no one has taught me more, both directly and by example.”— Coffee Basics by Kevin Knox (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1997).

“[George Howell] made The Coffee Connection one of, if not the premier, specialty coffee retailer of North America.”—Bill McAlpin, Hacienda La Minita, upon presenting the Specialty Coffee Association of America Lifetime Achievement Award to George Howell in 1996.

“Mr. Howell [is] a walking encyclopedia of coffee.”—Florence Fabricant, food columnist for The New York Times, 1993.

“More than perhaps any other roaster in the country, the Coffee Connection focuses on selling the most quintessential example from each coffee-producing country. [George Howell] is trying to purify and identify the core essence of each origin: What is it that makes Guatemala Antigua so good?”—The Perfect Cup by Timothy James Castle (Aris Books, 1991).

“Back in 1994, before George Howell sold … the Coffee Connection … to Starbucks, he had the best selection of green coffees in the US. Now he has started a new coffee-roasting business called GHH Select (George Howell Coffee Company). Most American “specialty” coffees, powerfully influenced by Starbucks, are roasted much darker than European coffee, covering or driving off the finest aromas. But Howell, as ever, roasts moderately…. On his recent list, the coffees from all seven geographic provenances were aromatic with fruit and flowers … in the way wine is.” —The Art of Eating, quarterly magazine by Edward Behr (2003, number 65).