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The Interview
George Howell Interview, Part Two
Author: Mark Prince
Posted: September 27, 2005
Article rating: 8.2
feedback: (3) comments | read | write

The second interview we did with George Howell (GH) was even more interesting. We talked about a super-hot-button topic in the roasting world - freezing green. I get the impression that if George saw some of the giant warehouses full of commercial bags of coffee, sweating away in hot summer days, he'd have a freak out. At Terroir Coffee, George's company, they freeze their green. In this podcast, you'll hear why, and a whole lot more.

CG: We are here now for the second interview George Howell, if you have missed the first one it is in the podcast feeds, you should definitely check it out. In the first one we have talked to George mainly about his history in the world of coffee, the Coffee Connection company (in Boston) and few other things. Now with this one we are going to get more into the subject of bean quality. So George, are you ready for the second one?

GH: Well, I hope so! (laughs)

CG: The first thing I am going to ask you is actually what we finished off in the last interview and that was the fact that this year a lot of people around the world were shocked, surprised, confused, whatever you want to say, about the fact that the World Barista Champion, Troels Poulsen from Denmark was using your coffee... and I was about to say blend, but it wasn't a blend, that's was really shocking. It was a Single Origin espresso that he used to win the World Championship this year.

GH: Yes, they called me right at the start, when they started competing; of course in Denmark first, and they wanted that coffee. Interestingly enough, it's not a blend. It's not a blend in the traditional coffee way of using it. But it is in fact a blend of different varieties and even slightly different processing from the same farm.

CG: Tell us what the coffee is and what the farm is, George.

GH: The farm is Daterra farm in Cerrado, Brazil, a very large farm run by Louis Pasqual, who is himself a fanatic over coffee and quality and its various expressions. He has been really a pioneer in developing new and better processes to produce quality, particularly in espresso. So I have been working hand in hand with him in that development.

CG: So the Danes called you up and said we want to use your coffee. Let me just first ask you, where you surprised by that?

GH: Yes and no, I have been talking to them before. We shared certain values, European values (on coffee) I have to say, more traditional values from Europe than what you see in the States, where of course for one light roast has been prevalent, unlike where in the United States where dark roast has taken over. So they were looking for a lighter roast expression, they knew me and tried our espresso before and they have fallen in love with it.

CG: Now in the process of them using the blend and deciding to use it in the World Championships were there any suggestions, feedback or collaboration to further tweak how the coffee was roasted and prepared?

GH: No, they loved it from the start. So there was none of that. And I have to say, to me what was really exciting, this was not one World Barista Champion, but three of them. They all come from the same place, Café Europa in Copenhagen, and it was the theme in all three of them that really felt that this espresso represented what they wanted to express.

CG: I know from seeing the judge's scores that the taste in the cup was a huge hit.

GH: And by the way, I personally believe that when you use this coffee, the Daterra, particularly what we call North Italian, the lighter roast of the two, it goes so well with café latte, it makes a cappuccino so amazingly smooth, of one fabric (unintelligible) and so sweet, it has to be completely different experience.

CG: I tried it at the show and I was impressed. The last time I tried your espresso blend it was a Northern Italian blend or roast level and a South Italian. It was a good espresso and I enjoyed drinking it but there was something magical about that Daterra I tried in Seattle.

GH: We tweaked it last year by adding another component from Daterra farm, which was a closest to a natural process. It added food and chocolate depth that we had not had earlier.

CG: And it also helped that I did have the eventual World Champion pulling the shots I have to admit.

GH: Well that does help! (laughter)

CG: George, I want to ask you about another project that is very near and dear to your heart. It is the Cup of Excellence program. I was told that you're not the sole founder or the starter of it but you were definitely involved with it in the early days. Is it correct?

GH: Yes, I share that honor with Suzy Spindler who is still running it to this day, who just has an amazing insight and staying power to keep going. But the conception of Cup of Excellence, the idea of a competition with the most stringent standards in the industry is still far by none and followed by an Internet auction, that was my idea.

CG: It is a very young program. When did it start?

GH: It started in late 1999 when the Gourmet Project was winding down and we had to find a way of really remunerating these farmers for producing higher quality. There was no other way than to create competition.

CG: I know it has only been around for six years but now Cup of Excellence is on the tongue of every specialty roaster, even consumers are starting to hear about it.

GH: Amen, as well as it should be, because again it is only a true a fair trade that you hear about how difficult life has been for coffee farmers, whether on small medium or large. And yes we continue to emphasize the blend. And the farmer remains anonymous, almost in every case, very few exceptions. And everybody knows that in this world of branding, if you are a coffee farmer and you are anonymous you are in the buyer's market.

CG: For sure. And Cup of Excellence goes a long way, along with auctions, like the Q Auctions, to really push the farmers into the forefront.

GH: Yes, I think the Cup of Excellence and Q auctions are dramatically different. I think Cup of Excellence is really looking for the finest, best crafted expressions of coffee from each area and I think that is the emphasis we need to give. I think most specialty coffee is quite honestly fair, average quality with a super name specialty but I don't think its necessarily super high quality. I don't think that the vast majority of Colombians, Perus and other coffees around the world that you taste come close to what their highest expressions really can do, and what is exciting, is that it is all in the future.

CG: And would you say this is true throughout coffee history or were there times in the past where there were just some stellar coffees. I know that (old) Java was gone as a crop in the late 1800's and I remember reading some old books and annual texts of how it was the "bomb" of the coffee.

GH: I had a Java a number of years ago, very small beans, actually one from Erna Knutzen, that absolutely blew me away. That was so floral. I never had it before and I had never had it since. So indeed there clearly have been expressions in the past like that, perhaps Jamaican Blue Mountain was once upon a time a great coffee.

CG: Do you think that the technology is really going to move us towards another higher level in terms of coffee quality.

GH: Well technology will in some areas for sure. The technology is raising the fair average quality overall and you can see that continue. This is going to be a big problem for farmers in Latin America and East Africa who are in more mountainous, steep areas where they can not mechanize and a lot of these innovations can not be made. It is a much more manual labor type product and it will always be and if people are not going to be willing to pay the price and explore Single Origin coffees you can kiss them goodbye.

CG: That brings to mind another question, just about the bean quality overall.
I'm just going to talk about the specialty coffee industry, not the overall industry. Do you think that the specialty industry is doing everything it can to just continuously raise the quality from seed to cup or are they dropping the ball anywhere?

GH: I think that the specialty coffee encompasses too many people and companies. Do I think that SCAA is doing all that it can? In some areas, they are training in terms of cupping that is spreading throughout Latin America and elsewhere and I think that's absolutely great. They have been involved with some really great programs.

I think there is a lack of discipline and a lack of focus that really needs to be tightened more towards the clean cup, which has everything to do with the processing of coffee and reflects directly on the craftsmanship and commitment on the part of the farmer and the processor, which is nowhere near emphasized enough. And which requires, by the way, when you go the SCAA Conventions and you cup the coffees they are presenting, often every coffee is roasted differently, dark, light.

There is a lack of discipline there that needs to be tightened. On the other hand, there are some major players in specialty throughout the country who are really working on raising the bar, so it's an exciting moment.

CG: Tell us who those companies are George.

GH: Well beside us, Terroir, Intelligentsia clearly one of them, there is Stumptown, Hines, Counter Culture, and number of them that don't come up immediately to mind.

CG: You mentioned Counter Culture and Intelligentsia. I happen to know that both of those companies have extremely and knowledgeable green been buyers. There is Geoff Watts in Intelligentsia and there is Peter Guiliano at Counter Culture. Is that part of the magic formula for specialty coffee company to really raise the bar and continuously seek higher quality coffee?

GH: I mean it is people like those who have supported Cup of Excellence over and over again and that is growing. Another company that I have become aware of recently is Ecco for instance, and I'm sure there are others that I'm not thinking of. Farmers need more and more players who are willing to step up the plate and buy these Single Origin coffees and pay far more than the fair trade price for coffee. Goodness gracious. That should be the bargain basement bottom that the farmers pay for good quality.

CG: I do agree and the other thing too is that there's this term that is is bandied about a lot: the direct relationships - that term. But I don't even think that the direct relationship really says exactly what goes on, between a green bean buyer like Geoff Watts, and the farmers that he deals with.

GH: That is helping the farmer improve their process more and more as time goes by and working with them. And again many of these farmers were found through Cup of Excellence. The whole point that I had with Cup of Excellence was to find farms, name them so that they could become equal players to their buyers, like Intelligentsia, where there is partnership, just like in wine. It's the same thing.

But then the next step, and I think this is where Terroir really goes beyond anyone else, not only in this country but anywhere else in the world, is in keeping the green unroasted coffee really fresh, from start to finish. So that a year later the coffee that you have in the warehouse isn't in a sack, isn't in a jute bag still hanging around, but it is air tight, kept in a special container and kept frozen.

CG: This is sort of your latest mission, dealing with freshness of the grain.

GH: To me that is the untold story. It is amazing. It is indication of just how young our industry is. Tea and wine are both thousand of years old. Coffee is a brand new baby business. It came out of the middles ages and it is very much dependent on the development of technology and brewing to really come to its size. We are only now just developing a tradition in coffee right now in my opinion. Espresso afterall only started being perfected in the 1950's for starters and same way with drip really.

CG: On the green bean freshness issue I know that have you actually done some really intense research and study into the effects of the coffee bean ageing naturally in a jute bag versus some fairly expensive system I believe you have invested in your freezing system (for green coffee).

GH: We have freezing in our special warehouses with - 40 degrees and just bringing what we need in that week to roast and that really stops the ageing process. Every green coffee bean contains oils. The oils have the aromatics within them that makes a coffee special, the floral, the fruit, all of that. Those quickly dissipate in air that is around them and oxidize over time.

They also start to transform so they go from sweet fruit and floral and lively flavors to duller flavors, woodier flavors and more generic flavors over the period of one year, which is how long you will retain coffee, like Kenyan and so on are harvested once a year. It's the main crop that you want to buy so the great Kenya is harvested in late November. It comes to me in June and I freeze it right away. I'm freezing it as we speak. I start selling this coffee in December, January, February and March.

Other's people coffee is getting older and older. Now, if you dark roast the coffee you will not notice it as much. With a light roast like what we do where we are emphasizing the floral and fruit and what's intricate in the coffee bean itself with the small signature as possible. It's like taking away the dark garnish so that you can see the grain. It's essential.

CG: We have a question from Robert, one of our forum members, regarding the freezing system in particular. He has actually asked eight questions and I'm going to toss out a few to you. He wanted to know what sort of costs are associated with the freezing system that you use and what sort of the volume would the roaster have to have to justify the cost of such a system.

GH: It's expensive. Let's say (roughly) 3 cents per pound per month that you're holding it if you find the right place but on top of that you have the delivery costs. The costs mount up daily and monthly. That is one of the reasons why our coffee is more expensive than anyone else's, but the difference is radical.

CG: Robert also asks if you would encourage the local roasters in geographical area to set up their own freezing and storage coop to save the costs and also when do you believe that freezing green beans will become industry standard.

GH: I don't know - a lot of people hesitate. It's a major test to see whether this market can be developed. I choose to come back (into the business of roasting coffee after a 10+ year hiatus) because this is an issue with me. I really wanted to move the ground forward to a completely different level of quality but it is risky for anyone to do this, because the costs are so high.

I would recommend that anybody that is going to do it has to be totally committed and believing in it like I am. I became a complete believer because we did it first over several years and started by doing it with samples. We would take 100 gram samples that I would roast in my Probot roaster and we froze it and the results were spectacular. So I have that experience but I would recommend that people start there first and see for themselves.

CG: Now we primarily talk to consumer audience here. Is this something that you would recommend that home roasters would do with any green beans they buy?

GH: Yes, anything they want to roast. Now you're talking libraries.

CG: How would you recommend that they do it? What kind of equipment would you suggest for a home roaster to buy.

GH: You can buy these vacuum sealer machines. You would take your green coffee, any amount that you want, package it and freeze it like that. As long as the seal holds it will hold up indefinitely.

CG: Is the speed of the freezing process important?

GH: I have not found it to be so.

CG: So they can just stick it in their normal freezer and not worry it about it.

GH: Yes that has been my experience.

CG: That's great. It is so radically different from freezing roasted coffee, which is just one of the things that drives me nuts, is to buy only enough roasted coffee for you to brew in a week. Not a day goes by without me receiving an email from somebody, "how can I store my coffee, is freezing better than fridge", and the act of freezing roasted coffee gives me the willies, but I have never thought before of freezing my green coffee.

GH: Well try it and let me know what you think.

CG: For sure George. The reason why you freeze the coffee and the reason why you are doing all this is because this is a new area, this is like green as the fresh source. You are kind of the pioneer in this and are other companies are looking into this or is it just Terroir?

GH: Right now I do think it's strictly Terroir. Probably the companies are going to become involved in this as they see us move forward and see that the reaction is. But it always takes a few brave souls, mainly Terroir in this case to prove the point.

CG: I imagine you did a lot of testing of frozen versus non-frozen green samples, is that correct?

GH: Yes we have, especially in the earlier days. That is exactly what it was about.

CG: What I like about this is that is something that the home roaster can do relatively easy to see if there is a difference.

GH: Yes it's something again that even if that home roaster is thinking about buying Costa Rican in December they are going to get it from somebody else again who's had in the open air that whole time.

CG: That is true, so they have to source the fresh stuff.

GH: I would say.

CG: That brings up another point. I just discovered recently that you sell green coffee to home roasters.

GH: Yes.

CG: We have another question from our forum. It says, "As a home roaster I have been enjoying your Daterra North Italian blend. Do you George have any tips or pointers when roasting these beans at home".

GH: The roaster that you have is very important. I haven't done a study in at least a year or so. Can I make recommendations, Mark, on terms of the coffee roasters I liked?

CG: Well, why don't we give recommendations on hot air roasters and than for a drum roaster, like the Hot Top.

GH: So far, I don't like any of the drum roasters. You have to go all to the way to Probat (sample roasters) in the thousands of dollars to get the one I like. The roaster was the one I found the best about year and half ago when I tested a number of air machines out.

CG: The Café Rosto?

GH: Yes, it was the one that gave the sweetest and cleanest coffee flavor, it didn't bake the coffee or over-roasted.

CG: Interesting. So if someone was using the Café Rosto to roast your Daterra
Single Origin coffee is there any recommendations you would give, like what level of roast they should take it to?

GH: Right up to the second pop, and as that is beginning that's when you stop it.

CG: Perfect, so you're going for what we call on the West Coast a full city roast.

GH: I guess. Now it's tricky because of course air roasting in the Probat, bowel roaster if you will, and now you're dealing with more than air flow, so it is different. With a pure air roaster you will have brighter notes and whether to develop the exact body what he have got with ours will be tricky. You may need to go a bit further, I don't know what degree you can adjust it to. That would be some interesting experiments to conduct.

CG: Very good. Actually George I have a question for you regarding home roasters in general. As a professional in the business and sort of the pioneer in so many things, what's your opinion on this home roasting phenomenon that have really happened in the late 1990's and in early part of this decade.

CG: Well, I think it's great. People who are home roasting are really willing to spend some time to explore coffee and I just think that's great. They should really use the roasters for learning purposes and for comparing.

CG: Your website is www.terroircoffee.com and that's where you sell all roasted and green coffees as well as retail packaged items?

GH: Yes.

CG: George, what have been your absolutely favorite Single Origin coffees?

GH: Well in the long period of time that I was out of roasting even my own coffee, the one I lived on the most was La Manita from Costa Rica. So that is one staple. It was so consistent and so smooth. I think Tom from Sweet Maria's has a great description of La Manita on his website.

The other truly great one is the Kenya. The finest Kenya AA's are truly one of the greatest expressions in the world. Another one is Yirgacheffe. These other two places that are unique this way. And you look at what the farmers are doing, they are bringing nothing else but absolutely red cherries. They are actually doing what everybody here is about but you rarely see it and I travel a lot. Pure red cherry and that's it. And the labor involved in that is immense and it comes out in the cup.

The Kenya coffee, and when it's right which is hard to find it, but if you get one that's the bull's eye, there is nothing sweeter in the world than that coffee. And that is because it is 100% ripe. Another one and upcoming that way is Rwanda, this year it absolutely amazed me what they came up.

CG: Everyone seems to be talking about that Rwanda this year.

GH: And it is spectacular. I've had but I have not been able to get a lot like that yet, but what I call the Indian coffee profile. I've had one coffee from Peru and I was desperate to find another one; that was when I was doing my consulting. And one from Columbia, but again never repeated in either case, which is a flavor profile utterly unique to this area, as much as the blackberry and blackcurrant is to Kenya, which extends when you get the very best from Tanzania, Zimbabwe and Burundi but it's as unique. And frankly in all of the coffees I have seen that has not come out.

As standards rise and as consumers start to pay more and think of coffee more like wine and they are really willing to incentive the farmers to do all they can, and as farmers learn to treat their coffees more like wine and love and drink their coffees, and most farmers don't, we are going to come to expressions of coffee that people simply haven't dreamed of.

CG: Now as far as your current coffee offerings on the Terroir website, if you had to recommend only one, what would you recommend? I know, I'm putting you on a spot a bit George.

GH: Well certainly if they haven't tried the Rwanda they need to. But Rwanda is extra ordinary in a sense that it has some Yirgacheffe aspects to it. I was expecting Kenya like and I got Yirgacheffe Ethiopian. I was absolutely amazed. But maybe a little more body and something else as well, still a coffee that I am exploring as I'm drinking it. So that's one. If you haven't tried the espresso and you're an espresso fan, than the Daterra North Italian is great.

Then we have the new crops coming in. So I would say look for the Cup of Excellence that we have bought in the next couple of months. There are some really amazing coffees so far that we have picked up from Nicaragua and Honduras, that have what I'm starting to call a Latin American profile, or I should say the Central American profile.

CG: I'm definitely looking forward to trying those coffees myself. We have one more question from our forum and it is going to take us into another direction. It's from Jeremy and he says, "Mr. Howell, other than don't do it what is the most important piece of advice you can give to folks interested in starting a small roastery or a small café".

GH: That's very hard. The small roaster is in a real bind. That is the advantage that I have. I am one of the small roasters right now, but with the name reputation and everything I have I often have the cloud of a much larger one I am very lucky that way.

I would say go to the countries, participate in every possible cupping you can, develop your cupping skills, that's key. You need to have a sample roaster there, do not depend on any importer telling you what to buy and what not to buy, don't buy from a single one. You have to be able to get samples, even if you have to pay for them. Or else, your quality is not going to be there. Perhaps I should be giving economic or business advice, but it's not where my mind is, its all in coffee.

CG: Tell me if I am wrong, but one of the things I like about the whole kind of a third wave of coffee people as of late, like Peter Guiliano, Geoff Watts, or Dwayne Sorensen, is that if you are really serious about wanting to get into the business and become a roaster, those guys will take you to Origin, they will take you with them on their trips.

GH: If you start talking to the really quality people, you ran into a community that is phenomenally open and ready to share. And I would say that the big door to that is not only the Roasters Guild but to me even better is Cup of Excellence. Participate, get samples from them and try to get on the jury by becoming more experienced.

CG: Does Cup of Excellence have a website?

GH: Yes, and it is www.cupofexcellence.org. So you should try to get those samples, even if you have to use Rosto-type of a roaster or whatever, you should do that. And the last thing is, when you are cupping coffee, please, less adjectives and all this foaming at the mouth about this and that, and the most important things are clean cup and sweetness.

Sweetness has to do with ripeness and clean cup has to do with the process, that's the craftsmanship that the farmer used. That's the farmer should be paid for.

CG: Excellent stuff George. I think I sense a possible third interview down the road just about cupping.

GH: Anytime.

CG: I think we are going to wrap it up now. It has been an honor and pleasure to talk to you and to get your voice out to our readership. I think our listeners are going to be absolutely thrilled to hear your sage words and your experiences in the coffee business.

GH: They can also check out www.georgehowell.com, which is non-commercial, and I have my last trip which I did with a bunch of quality super folks to Ethiopia. They can see the slides and some of the comments there.

CG: I even heard the rumor about georgehowell.com that it may turn into a blog.

GH: That's a possibility.

CG: Where George is posting updates every few days.

GH: Ah, if I could only find the time!

CG: Well once again thank you very much George. It's been great having you here and I look forward not only to talking to you soon again but also trying some of your new crop as well as some of the current stuff.

GH: Well thank you Mark, it is always a pleasure talking to you.

Article rating: 8.2
Author: Mark Prince
Posted: September 27, 2005
feedback: (3) comments | read | write
The Interview Column Archives  
Column Description
The Interview features in depth and informative discussions with some of the leaders, players, and unique characters in the world of coffee and espresso. From Barista champs to innovators in the espresso world, from coffee farmers, to coffee roasters, you'll find some interesting insights with each new interview posted.

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Will Smith Interview
03.16.2012
Ryan Block
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George Howell Interview, Pt2
09.28.2005
George Howell Interview, Pt1
09.02.2005
Eirik Johnsen Interview
08.03.2003
Wendelboe - Master Barista
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Interview with Barista Champ
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