George Howell has been in the coffee business for more than 40 years, but the industry pioneer has news for those who think he should be settling down in his 70s: “We’ve just begun doing this.”
After moving from California in 1974, Howell discovered the coffee scene in Boston was “a real big zero.” He soon decided to open up his first shop, the Coffee Connection, in Harvard Square, displaying Huichol art on the walls and introducing local palates to single-origin coffee from farms in countries like Kenya, Guatemala and Costa Rica. After selling his two dozen Coffee Connection stores—and a little drink called the Frappuccino—to Starbucks in 1994, Howell made it his goal to get coffee farms more recognition for their beans. He worked for the U.N.’s Gourmet Project and, in 1999, co-founded the Cup of Excellence in Brazil, where Howell helped foster connections between coffee farmers and companies such as Stumptown, Intelligentsia and Peet’s.
“Third-wave was sort of born in that time,” Howell says. “They would then go from the Cup of Excellence and go out into the countryside meeting the winning farms and establishing relationships with them to buy their coffee.”
Howell started his own roasting operation, George Howell Coffee, in 2003 and has since opened a cafe in Newtonville, a stall in the Boston Public Market and a showcase cafe in the Godfrey Hotel, which offers a menu of single-estate and micro-lot coffee and specialty drinks along with tastings, classes and retail beans from farms in Yemen, Ethiopia and beyond. Howell plans to slowly expand with additional satellite cafes in the Boston Public Market mold as well as one or two more showcase cafes in Greater Boston.
“Where I want to focus is on the cafe because the cafe allows direct communication between us—the roaster and buyer of coffee—and the consumer. It is the direct intersection, and it’s only that way that I feel I can effect change,” Howell says. “The dream is that sometime from now into the distant future, consumers are looking for particular farms and are asking the roaster how they’re roasting it. And it’s going more in the direction of the wine industry.”
“Juan Negrín. I actually knew him when I lived in Mexico City as a teenager, going to the French high school in Mexico City. And then we went to Yale together as well. He was an artist first, of extraordinary brilliance. But then he gravitated toward working with the Huichol Indians as individual artists, and then through those artists entering into the culture itself and becoming a key connection for that culture with the Mexican government as a go-between and bringing support—cultural, artistic and practical—to them.… I exhibited that art for him in Coffee Connection and various art galleries from Los Angeles to New York. … Juan’s pursuit of the art and the authentic, and the quality he demanded, and his absolute focus on that throughout his life, was the example.”