Several years ago, when George Howell re-entered the coffee roasting business after his required post-Starbucks sale of the Coffee Connection, George sent me some of his first roasts. As usual, they were the model of top selected green beans. But, the first thing I noticed that was different, and frankly, disappointing was the roast. The next time I saw George I asked him if he was trying to roast ala Sushi. He was good natured but I was trying to make a point. I think we’re witnessing a measured response to Starbucks, much like conservative Christians are taking Saul Alinksy’s Rules for Radicals and using it to advance their agenda. The agenda in coffeedom is to eliminate any trace of roast contribution to the final product.
Now, it is probably impossible to completely eliminate roast from the final product. But, they can come damn close.
Starbucks, the most popular of the West Coast roast style developed by Alfred Peet in the 1970s, truly blasts the coffee with heat. I think it is fair to say the dark almost-black roast dominates the coffee. I complained about it in print in the mid-1990s. My newsletter folded that year. Starbucks went on to be a household word. George Howell was forced to sit on the bench for ten years after selling his highly-respected chain to none other than Starbucks. The day George announced the sale I told a coffee industry colleague that the battle of Gettysburg had been fought in Boston, only this time the wrong side won. I’m enough of a historian to realize my analogy was flawed, but it was more like Goliath killing David in the Old Testament. I just knew most people in the coffee business never read the bible.
But, George didn’t just sit on the bench. He kept going to Specialty Coffee conferences (trade shows). He kept chatting about how roasts were going to kill the business, the specialty business. He spoke so much truth, the young guys, new to the business, started following him. I would argue that George Howell did more evangelizing in the time he was figuratively laid off in the coffee business than most working roasters do during their entire careers. There are a number of roasters today, Intelligentsia, Counter Culture and Paradise Roasters are three top examples of well-regarded sellers who follow t\what I’ll call the Howell Method, defined by buying the best possible green beans (think: Cup of Excellence) and roasting them to what I would call sample roast level. The goal is to present these expensive green coffee cuvées in their brightest light, to expose all that the earth, sun and botany gave them and little if anything from the roast. It is a source of pride to these practitioners to be able to do it. While neither George nor any of his followers have ever said so directly, I suggest had it not been for Starbucks, they would not be roasting this light.
Consider as evidence the original Coffee Connection, George Howell’s first operation, the one Starbucks took as spoils of the Boston coffee wars. I used to plan my international travel just so I could lay over in Boston, always taking in a visit to Quincy Market and the Coffee Connection store there. George, via his roastmaster par excellence, Robert Datala, had various beans. Probably none of them except their La Minita Costa Rican variety had the pedigree George now demands, but I tasted some of the best coffee I’ve had to date there. While always roasted towards light, I would say (from memory of course) that the Coffee Connection roasted darker than George Howell coffee does.
Now George might say he roasts to whatever level he regards as best for a particular coffee. I’m sure he does, but what I’m suggesting is he now roasts with an agenda and that agenda is to preach the absence of roast. My fear is that he may be doing so instead of roasting to maximize flavor, out of which a substantial part is the varietal taste of the particular coffee, but a portion which is still allowed to be the roast itself. To deny this is to say that enjoying a Filone Italian bread, which has a darker crust and is baked longer to achieve it, means you aren’t getting as much bread flavor but more of a baked flavor. I say they are both just as much bread, simply a variant of the bread taste.
While I’m a coffee roast libertarian and want George Howell to be free to roast however he wishes to, I’m mourning the fact that I appear to enjoy his coffee less because of it. Frankly, he reminds me of my elder brother who told me he would never wear bluejeans because they were a sign of conformity. Whoa! If you won’t do something others do because they’re just doing it to go along, aren’t you now doing the opposite, in effect, to go along? You certainly aren’t really being independent of it are you?
The meaning of this to other coffee aficionados is we must strongly consider who we are buying our coffee from and how they roast. I used to avoid roasters who roast routinely too dark. Lately, I’m eschewing those who roast too light. In either case I think they are doing a disservice to my taste buds. While I always want to keep the signature of where a coffee was grown and how it was grown, I just as strongly want to taste a slight caramel note that says that coffee was roasted to its full development. I realize the word development is pretentious and not truly scientific, but it’s still about flavor to me, not religion or politics or to teach Starbucks a lesson.
In the past two years, I’m finding more and more that online claims of Cup of Excellence in roasted coffee descriptions means it’s going to be roasted extremely light, too light for my tastes. I’m actually finding that lower grade coffees are apt to be roasted a bit darker, and often cup better at my table because of it. Since George Howell originally studied art, I would say we are currently in a roasting age of photo-realism and I’m a romantic at heart. So if a Starbucks roast is the soft-focus impressionism of Monet, George Howell’s have become the photo-realism of Bechtel. I guess I’m looking for the romantic portraits of a Rembrandt.