Café founder, coffee roaster, importer and pioneer of specialty principles decades before the third wave gained traction, George Howell has worn many hats in the business of coffee over the years. Yet, as he tells World Coffee Portal, being a coffee enthusiast has always suited him best
George Howell, founder, George Howell Coffee | Photo credit: George Howell Coffee
Exploring George Howell’s career is like taking a trip through the development of specialty coffee culture itself. From establishing renowned Boston-based café Coffee Connection with his wife Laurie in 1975 to becoming a pioneer of direct trade and single origin appreciation, and being a key figure in the development of the Cup of Excellence, Howell’s impact on the world of specialty coffee has been immense and profound.
From the outset of his career, Howell’s attention to detail and passion for the craft of coffee have been the hallmarks of his decades of innovation. That dedication is evident in one of his early coffee experiences – brewing coffee on the road with his French press in the late 1960s.
“I would pay 35 cents for hot water at restaurants along the interstate and grind coffee in the men’s room. As I was pouring the hot water into my French press people would come up to me, wondering what in the heck I was doing. All of this was happening before I had a clue that I’d be in coffee a year later,” he recalls.
Guided by curiosity and a passion for elevating coffee quality – and convinced they could do better than the beverages frequently served in Boston at the time – Howell and his wife Laurie opened their first coffee shop business. Taking inspiration from hit film The French Connection – an inspired suggestion from Laurie – the first Coffee Connection café opened in Boston in April 1975.
“There were no marketing studies to suggest that we would be super successful. It was by driving home what I was passionately interested in – a café unlike any other that I had seen – that really made the success.”
“The older I've gotten and the more I’ve been involved, the more it’s about the farmer. Period”
Howell was heavily inspired by the work of the late Erna Knutsen, who is widely regarded as the Godmother of specialty coffee and whose San Francisco-based B.C. Ireland coffee brokerage also supplied the high-quality coffees Howell sought. In 1988 she introduced Howell to Kenyan green coffee merchants Dormans Coffee, a business he retains strong links with today.
“All roads lead to Rome, and Rome was Erna Knutsen,” says Howell. “The quality that she was offering – from Sumatra, Kenya, Ethiopia, the Americas – there was no one who even came close to it,” he says.
As Howell recounts, that first café was notable for several innovations that were decades ahead of their time. Every coffee offered for home consumption was also available to be brewed on the spot in a French press. Frustrated by the lack of fresh coffee available in Boston, Howell ensured every barrel of roasted coffee and every bag sold at retail was dated, meaning customers were served fresh coffee no more than five or six days old.
“I don’t think anything happened like that for another two decades or more anywhere in the US,” says Howell.
“We were very popular from day one and customers streamed in. There was an unacknowledged desire on the part of many people to have something tasting decent that had not yet been expressed by anyone, at least on the East Coast at the time.
Coffee Connection continued to grow successfully in the Greater Boston area, reaching 12 stores by 1992. The following year saw the business attain venture capital funding, enabling it to double in size by outlets and gain a foothold in Connecticut, New York and New Jersey.
“We certainly succeeded because I found people to work with who were really great at what they did. That happened with Coffee Connection and it’s happening now. It can take time to find and with a lot of falls in the process,” Howell says.
Despite the rapid ascent of Coffee Connection, Howell says expansion was always “opportunistic” rather than strategic and that commercial success was never the primary motive for scaling the brand.
Yet, with Coffee Connection Howell achieved both in a single stroke. With the café’s reputation for excellence complemented by Howell’s keen eye for great locations, the business grew in both size and influence.
Howard Schultz (left) with George Howell (right) in 1994 | Photo credit: George Howell Coffee
In 1993 Coffee Connection caught the eye of a rapidly expanding coffee chain called Starbucks, which went on to “quite unexpectedly” acquire the business.
“They approached us because we had such great locations, because we had created knowledgeable coffee customers, and because we really owned Boston, completely owned it,” Howell recalls.
The acquisition not only enabled Howell to focus more on his family, which by that point was six children approaching college age, but also to focus on innovation, something that a growing business empire had proved a distraction from.
“I was having to pull myself away from that pioneering discovery work that I was doing, towards getting more investment, money, organisation and all the rest, which is not where my heart beats.”
Embracing the opportunity to pursue his passion for discovery, Howell set up a sample roaster and cupping lab in his home, a move that also enabled him to stay connected to the specialty coffee community.
A cup above the rest
In 1997 Howell was invited to become a quality consultant to Brazil as part of the Gourmet Project, a twoyear initiative set up by the United Nations’ International Trade Council (ITC) and the International Coffee Organization (ICO).
The goal of the project was to promote high-grade coffee, initially from Brazil, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe and Papua New Guinea, to emerging specialty markets in the US, Europe and Japan in order to gain higher premiums for farmers unable to invest in quality because of C-price volatility.
Howell says his interest in single origin coffee had first been sparked by the discovery of Kenyan and Costa Rican varieties in the late 1980s, with the Gourmet Project enabling him to further hone his expertise without the distraction of running a multi-site coffee business.
For two years Howell toured Brazilian coffee farms to learn from and engage with producers about tapping into the lucrative US specialty coffee market.
After scouring Brazil’s coffee lots for the best coffee he could find, Howell brought back three of his best samples to the US and pitted them against 11 others for a blind cupping.
“The three coffees I had came first, second and third,” he says, adding that the buzz surrounding the tastings brought about a change in attitude among some roasters, which had been previously reluctant to pay more for Brazilian coffees.
“It was logical to come up with an internet auction. That’s the beginning of Cup of Excellence”
Now, he says, they were excited about the discovery of new varieties and flavour profiles.
“That was a lesson in terms of bringing people together and really having them blind taste excitingly different coffees. That discovery changed the atmosphere, the attitude and propelled people towards getting excited. It made people see coffee as more than just a business product.”
With the two-year Gourmet Project approaching its conclusion, “I recommended that we do a competition involving a jury of specialty roasters from Japan, the US and Europe spending a week in Brazil, and cupping every day and winnowing selected top lots to find the gems,” says Howell.
“It dawned on me after the competition involving the best lots from Brazil, that at the very least participating roasters from Japan, the US and Europe, who formed the jury in Brazil, might be fighting over who gets what coffee. So, it was logical to come up with an internet auction and that’s the beginning of Cup of Excellence (CoE) right there,” he says.
The original team that established the first ‘Best of Brazil’ auction in 1999 included Marcelo Vieira, Chairman and one of the founders of Brazil Specialty Coffee Association (BSCA), Silvio Leite, quality consultant and still head judge for the Cup of Excellence, Susie Spindler, long-time Executive Director of Alliance For Coffee Excellence (ACE), Hidetaka Hayashi of Hayashi Coffee Company in Japan, and Don Holly working with the then Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA).
The results were “huge” Howell recalls, with all the lots fetching 35% above market price. “We never looked back. A year later Guatemala was calling me wanting to join Cup of Excellence, which hadn’t been named that yet, followed by Nicaragua – and the rest is history.”
Today the Cup of Excellence is still championing quality among the world’s best coffee growers and generating significant value for producers at its auctions. The top-scoring coffee 2022 Ethiopia CoE was grown by farmer Legesse Botasa Dikale in the east African nation’s renowned Sidama region. It fetched $400.50 per pound during a public auction to break the competition’s record for the highest price ever paid for CoE-winning green coffee.
Left to right: George Howell Coffee’s Director of Coffee Sourcing, Jenny Howell; Japheth Mwaura, owner of Makena coffee farm in Kenya; George Howell | Photo credit: George Howell Coffee
George Howell Coffee
Stepping back from the Cup of Excellence programme in 2002, Howell once again returned to the business of coffee, launching specialty coffee roaster, wholesaler, retailer and coffee shop group, George Howell Coffee.
George Howell Coffee maintains close partnerships with high-quality producers from across Africa, Central and South America in addition to working with longstanding export partners, such as Kenya’s C Dorman Ltd.
A major innovation at George Howell Coffee is that all green coffee is frozen from day one upon arrival in Boston, a practice Howell began in 2004.
“If you get the coffee soon enough its freshness is maintained over a period of two to three years, minimum. This allows us to skip right over the idea of coffee being seasonal and it’s available year-round. This puts single-farm coffees in the spotlight and creates consumer recognition.
“I can’t tell you how many videos there were saying ‘never freeze your coffee at home’ – which is absolute bull!”
Most importantly for Howell, specialty coffee and the investment in producers to boost quality and build climate resilience remains the cornerstone of his work.
“The older I’ve gotten and the more I’ve been involved, the more it’s about the farmer. Period. If we don’t support farmers and give them the means to grow and participate in profits, the golden goose is gonna leave,” he urges.
As for more recent coffee innovations, Howell is sceptical about some of the marketing in the specialty industry, citing cold brew’s recent obsession with low acidity as one example.
“Cold brew is frankly very generic, it’s more of a beer-like substance and it does not really reflect the terroir or the nuances of a coffee, yet people are selling it as ‘low acidity’. Try a wine without acidity. How about a strawberry without acidity? You’ve got to be kidding me!
“Coffee should have a liveliness to it. It shouldn’t be so sharp that it makes you cringe – it should be smooth.
Great coffee properly roasted has a natural sweetness. Like a really ripe strawberry, it has no unpleasant sharpness. If the strawberry is unripe its acidity is sharp and astringent.” he says. “Acidity is the carrier of fine fruit and floral notes.”
Howell’s enduring influence in the world of specialty coffee is a testament to years of dedication to his craft. Over the decades that passion has inspired countless coffee professionals from across the supply chain.
It also led to commercial success, with Howell’s ground-breaking coffee shop business attracting investment and eventually being acquired by the world’s most commercially successful coffee chain, Starbucks.
But for Howell, making money was never the motive but rather a happy consequence of his painstaking and innovative approach. As for the future, Howell says his focus will be sustainable growth for his business, including opening more cafés, which enable him to engage with the coffee community, connect with like-minded coffee professionals and forge deeper connections with producers.
“I’m not into saturating areas, which inevitably leads to a reduction in quality. If you grow way too fast, that’s what happens.
“Whatever I’m doing – it’s got to be top of the line in terms of the quality. I’m driven by the need to share, and you can’t share something you yourself don’t fully believe in,” he says.
For that reason, the only business lesson Howell offers is to follow your passion with the same painstaking and patient approach that has driven his success over the years.
“The only thing I can say is to keep one’s feet on the ground and be aware of the realities, so you don’t do insane things.” That sounds like sage advice indeed.
This article was first published in Issue 14 of 5THWAVE magazine.
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