Back to the Grind
Nearly two decades after selling his iconic Coffee Connection chain to Starbucks, George Howell is about to attempt a comeback. Can the café visionary retake the coffee world, or has his time passed?
The sampling, or “cupping,” of coffee is an intricate process. Demonstrating it one recent morning, George Howell places a precisely measured layer of freshly ground beans on the bottom of a glass, then sniffs, shakes, and sniffs again. Boiling water is poured on the coffee, and Howell puts his nose up close and inhales deeply. Then, surgeon-like, he uses two spoons to remove any bean debris or foam that’s floated to the surface of the glass. Next comes the stir: A spoon is rapidly submerged three times in the glass to allow the aromas to escape. Howell leans over, putting his face up against the edge of the glass as he stirs. As I attempt the maneuver alongside him, I wind up splashing coffee on my nose. Howell, laughing, tells me I’ve been baptized.
That’s not much of a stretch, actually. At various times, Howell has been called an “idol,” a “god,” and the “high priest” of the coffee bean. “George has this almost mystical obsession with coffee flavor,” says Peter Giuliano of the Specialty Coffee Association of America. “It’s totally inspiring to coffee people. He has a transcendent passion about coffee, and a quasi-religious zeal.”
In 1975 Howell opened the Coffee Connection, the Harvard Square café that would become a national model for the gourmet coffee experience. His revolutionary idea was to source high-quality beans and roast them lightly, allowing subtle, more nuanced flavors to emerge, a huge contrast with the nearly burned roasts that dominated the day. Howell was also one of the first roasters to source beans not just from particular countries, but from individual farms—each with a unique flavor profile, or terroir, owing to factors such as soil quality, latitude, altitude, and annual rainfall. So instead of mixing beans to create, say, a Costa Rican blend, Howell purchased from single-estate farms to create distinct brews.
His café was also the birthplace of still another industry-altering innovation: the Frappuccino. The trademarked blend of espresso, milk, ice, and sugar debuted in 1992 and quickly reshaped Boston’s coffee-consumption habits, eventually becoming the driving force behind an aggressive expansion of the Coffee Connection chain, which by 1994 had 23 locations throughout the Northeast. The drink also attracted the attention of a Seattle coffee company with national aspirations. In 1994 Starbucks made the Coffee Connection its first acquisition, paying $23 million for the chain and the rights to the Frappuccino name.
It’s been nearly 20 years since Howell sold the Coffee Connection, yet he remains an influential figure in what has become a specialty-coffee movement in this country. In the late ’90s, Howell was hired by the United Nations to improve the quality of Brazilian coffee beans, which inspired him to create Cup of Excellence, an international development program that helped set up the direct trade of beans from small coffee farmers to roasters. And just a few years after the noncompete agreement he signed with Starbucks expired in 2001, he opened a roastery in Acton called Terroir Coffee.
These days Howell is a fixture on the coffee-lecture circuit (yes, there is such a thing), and continues to be very much the coffee innovator. For example, he incubated the software program ExtractMoJo, which has become an industry standard by helping baristas pour coffee with the precision of a nuclear physicist. “He’s this celebrity,” says Merry “Corky” White, a Boston University anthropology professor who is an expert on international coffee culture. “People all over the world know his name.”
That may be so, but spend time with Howell and you quickly get the impression that, as far as he’s concerned, not nearly enough of them do. While waiting for his noncompete agreement to expire, Howell was forced to watch from the sidelines as it was Starbucks, and not the Coffee Connection, that ignited the American coffee revolution. And many of those beans he was busy sourcing as part of his work with the UN wound up being bought by the generation of high-quality independent roasters and retailers who sprung up after that revolution—the companies that today are spoken of by the coffee cognoscenti in the same reverent tones that nearly 40 years ago were reserved for Howell’s pioneering chain of cafés.
So now, at age 68, George Howell is setting out to reconquer the coffee world. He’s certain that he’s got the solution to the problem with the industry these days—that it’s been hijacked by latte elitists with no appreciation for the simple, pure, “noble” drink that’s been the love of his life and the source of his fortune. These coffee snobs instead push fussy coffee-based beverages with complicated combinations of milk, sugar, and foam, Italian-sounding names, and high profit margins. With the Frappuccino, Howell may have set off the nation’s addiction to what are essentially coffee milkshakes, but he’s every bit the purist, disdainful of the espresso and “latte art” crazes, and convinced that boring old drip coffee is, as ever, the pinnacle of the form.
Howell is determined to put the coffee back at the forefront of the coffee shop, starting with a new flagship café here in Boston that will elevate the drink to its rightful place next to wine. He envisions regular tastings and cuppings, formal lessons in the flavor profiles of beans from the different regions of the planet, and, in general, a daily celebration of all things coffee. His aim is to make the drinking of your morning brew a “30-minute pleasure trip.” He sees his concept spreading across the country, location by strategic location. It’s a bold plan from a visionary coffee entrepreneur, but there are a few complications, chief among them the fact that it’s far from clear that anybody is really clamoring for yet another chain selling good coffee. With even McDonald’s elbowing its way into the “premium roast” game these days, it’s at least worth asking whether the market has become saturated. And even it if hasn’t, even if there is room for an innovative new concept, a lot of people close to Howell wonder whether he’s really the guy to lead the charge. In part, that’s because Howell has tried a comeback before. Nearly 10 years ago, he opened a restaurant and café in Lexington that wound up a costly failure. There are also questions about just how well Howell’s passion for unadorned drip coffee matches up with the tastes of the consumers who actually spend money in cafés. And finally, explains Howell’s friend Dan Cox, who is an industry analyst, there’s a concern that the coffee drinkers of today “don’t understand that you’re the old master. They really don’t care.”
Cox has expressed these reservations directly to his friend, but Howell is resolute. He’s changed the name of his company to George Howell Coffee, confident that his reputation and expertise will give him an advantage in the marketplace. This past February, he opened a tiny Newton café under that name, and is using it as a testing ground for his new concept. And not long after leading me through the intricacies of the coffee cupping, he was off again in search of a flagship location for his next coffee empire.