Why George Howell?

Neighborhoods was only about two months away from opening, and I still hadn’t settled on a roaster. I was looking for exceptional coffee that cared about the grower and was without a precocious attitude, which can sometimes run through the artisan coffee industry. It had to be fair trade, small batch roasted, with growers who were so identifiable that I could know their working conditions myself. Though I found some places that cared about the grower, I couldn’t truly say whether or not it was exceptional coffee. The main problem was that I’d only ever worked at Starbucks and didn’t have a well developed palate.   

Again, another friend to the rescue. His name was Cabell and he was known in the Boston coffee industry. At the time, he worked for the Thinking Cup and had won lots of latte art championships. He’s gone on to be the Latte Art World Champion three times since we’ve opened. He also has 44.9k followers on Instagram: two things I learned just now when I googled him to spell his name correctly for his shout out. At least for what I intended to be a shout out, after reading about him these days it appears to be more like name dropping. Anyway, he by all means knew what exceptional coffee tasted like. So, I wrote to roasters all over the U.S. and they sent us samples, Intelligentsia, MadCap- other buzzword and excellent names in the world of coffee. They would send me their coffee. He would come over and taste it with Charlotte, Kristy and I and tell us what we should be noticing. I didn’t know what a coffee bloom was until he brought his own kettle, showed us how to pour it and explained what good coffee should be doing. (In case you’re wondering, a “coffee bloom” is simply the given name for when the hot water contacts the grounds and Co2 is released creating a “bloom”. It rises up in a beautiful way and changes to a lighter color. I’d like to meet whoever coined it; it’s a great word choice.) He would pick apart the bean and tell me about the color and the shell, throwing away $20 bags of coffee because they weren’t worth our time. And he did it just to be nice and because he loved coffee. He taught us many things about coffee, training our palette, having fun, and building our knowledge.  

A local name kept coming up in the tastings, George Howell. When someone who sent me samples all the way from Iowa mentioned him as a standard in the industry for quality, and I knew George Howell was right around the corner from us, I thought I should probably take it as a sign and knock on their door for some samples. Before I could, I got a direct email from the George Howell roastery in Acton. I hadn’t contacted them, but they were inviting me out to taste their coffees! How could I not go? The ironic thing was that they had heard about me because they were thinking about renting the very storefront in which I was currently setting up shop.    

When I went out and met George Howell, I met a man with integrity who cared about the bean and cared about the people. I met his wife, whom he had been married to for over 25 years. I met his daughter and son, two out of their six kids, who were working with them in their adventure. And I met a dog- I wish I knew whose he was or at least his name to make the story better. But he was great: friendly and obedient. In fact, if I remember correctly, he didn’t cross the threshold of the office when the rest of us went to taste coffee together. Probably a health code trained dog. George Howell  had started the Coffee Connection in 1974 and when Starbucks wanted to come to Boston from Seattle in 1994, they bought his stores to put their product in. He said it came at just the right moment. He had twenty-four stores and at the time, though people had dabbled in artisan roasting and artisan brewing, the grower was somewhat of an uncharted territory. He told me you could get a bag of green coffee with the words “Kenya” on it, and you had no idea where it was really grown. So he took some of his earnings from Starbucks and headed overseas to invest and explore in the growing process. George cared about the grower before it was trending and almost single handedly invented the “Cup of Excellence.” This was an award that started back in 1995 to raise the growing quality of the bean, while also raising the price roasters would offer. I had met a man who initiated a way to lift the quality of bean and quality of life simultaneously. On that day at the roasters, I learned so many things, and I enjoyed my experience with them and their exceptional coffee. They even said they would help me train my employees for free, my employees who I had yet to hire, by the way. They said they would train them because they cared about how their coffee tasted and wanted to bring out the best of their beans.  I had obviously met people who it felt like were pursuing the same goals as us. Even Cabell approved of the choice.   

Two months later, a week away from opening, we were being trained by an amazing barista named Sal, who was then working for George Howell coffee company.  He was teaching my employees (wonderful people who also deserve their own blog post one day!) and I all about the importance of how long a shot is in contact with the water for ideal extraction. In the downtime, he asked me why I was starting the coffee shop. Somehow faith came into the story and he said my faith reminded him of his wife’s. ‘She’s connected to Brighton?’ ‘We know people in Brighton’. ‘Who in Brighton?’ ‘Where in Brighton?' 'I know them! In fact that’s my husband’s parents.’ It turned out, Sal and his wife were newlyweds, and as we unraveled the story, it became clear that my father-in-law was his wife's pastor and had just officiated their wedding ceremony only two months earlier.  Then it dawned on me that more than one person in my father-in-law’s circle had told me of Sal and that I needed to meet him to learn from him. There he was standing in Neighborhoods training us. Small world. George Howell was already helping people connect at Neighborhoods and we hadn’t even opened. And we continue to serve their exceptional coffee and nurture meaningful relationships.  

And George Howell coffee continues to match our vision. They are still the family run small business, even though they’re well known and have a big impact. They are small enough to buy small lot sizes, direct trade, and single source, without having to blend beans to get enough for their customers. They continue to travel and visit the growers. By the time we opened, they trained us well, much thanks to Sal, and they continue to provide training and support. Instead of being precocious, they value education for everyone- including the consumer. Please come in, join the conversation, and taste and learn for yourself. Who knows, we may find out we have something in common besides coffee.