Coffee is one of the youngest and least explored beverages
available today. Whatâs more, itâs in jeopardy of never being appreciated for
its true range of styles and flavor variations in this country. Those are just
some of the points made by coffee expert and importer George Howell during a
seminar on the beverage given at Johnson & Wales University campus in
Providence, R.I. Howell's passion for the beverage - from bean to brewing - was,
well, palpable and eye-opening during the sessions, which held J&W students
rapt attention for three hours (sampling a dozen or so coffees probably helped
Howell is on a personal mission to transform coffee from a commodity beverage of mediocre quality at best to an experience and a specialty drink, not to mention a way to help drive the economies of coffee-producing countries, some of which rank among the poorest of the world.
Literally just off the plane from Colombia - he landed a few short hours before arriving at J&W, with no jet lag evident (hmmm - a little java involved, no doubt)Howell explained the origins of coffee, how it migrated from the west coast of Africa to the east and then made its way to be planted in Indonesia and South America. One crucial point was how many plants, beans, hands and how much skill is required to produce a mere cup of the liquid much desired but not quite revered by so many Americans. In fact, Howell asserts that coffee plants take twice as much time to grow and harvest as wine grapes.
Howell is indeed a coffee geek, having been one of the first coffeehouse concept operators when he founded Coffee Connection twenty-something years ago, which he sold to Starbucks. He then went onto delve deeper into coffee, frustrated that it had become merely a flavoring in what he calls "milk beverages."
Largely due to the economics of coffee production in many
coffee-producing countries - wherein the farmers are actually paid less than the
cost of production, making any genuine attention to quality, lest investment in
better systems and equipment, a pipe dream - mediocre to poor quality coffee is
what typically reaching consumers in the U.S. In his view, we put milk in our
coffee as a means of obliterating the fact that on its own, our coffee is "largely undrinkable stuff." Outstanding quality coffees exist, Howell asserts,
you just have to climb up the slippery slopes of towering peaks in places like
Howell does just that. His company, George Howell Terroir Coffee Co., imports high-end, single farm origin coffees which he sells on his web site for up to $15 per pound. He compensates the farmers fairly for their laborsâeven exceeding fair trade standards, he saysâand promotes the individual farmers on the coffee packaging as a way of raising awareness of their existence along with their products.
Interestingly, it's not our nation's high-end restaurants
that are clamoring for Howell's coffees. In fact, he indicates that restaurants
are dead set against paying anything but rock bottom prices for coffee because
operators are so conditioned to view coffee as a commodity and feel paying
higher prices will negatively impact their precious food costs.
"The restaurant industry nickel and dimes on coffee prices; operators are just not interested in quality," he said. "They need to start looking at coffee as something special and give up the commodity approach."
So just how did the coffees taste? Well, I confess, I'm not
a coffee drinker. To me, the aroma of coffee is acrid, bitter and vile, a
perception which has not enticed me to drink it. But, I opted to be open
minded - after all, these beans were plucked off mountaintops in
What did I learn? That there's more to coffee than meets the eye (or the nose, for that matter). There's an opportunity for restaurant and beverage pros to differentiate their operation by differentiating their coffee offerings. Going for quality, educating the guest on where the coffees come from and what makes them unique can get the consumer who today will shell out $4 for a Starbucks in a paper cup to dig deeper in their pocket for something truly special served in a lovely cup and delivered with some flair and information.