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This is the third of a three part series of blog posts delving into the people and companies that were either heavily involved with CoffeeGeek, its foundation and its community, or were major influencers of CoffeeGeek, it’s community, and me personally. The first part focused on the two owners of Baratza; without them, this site probably would have ceased to exist in 2002. The second part talked about La Marzocco, the development of industry-standard espresso theories, and espresso competitions and gatherings.
In this last part, we have two focuses again: how one real giant of this industry played a role in the development of CoffeeGeek and our educational path in the 2000s; and the companies that really made it possible for this website to turn into a community and flourish between 2002 and 2010.
If you’re in specialty coffee, you know who George Howell is. George is often called the father of specialty coffee on the US east coast, is the principle founder of the Cup of Excellence, and is considered by many to be the most knowledgeable all around coffee person alive today.
I knew of George Howell even back in 1998, thanks to some books I read, hearing about him from the folks at La Marzocco, and people talking reverently about him in the alt.coffee newsgroup. I knew he fell in love with Peet’s Coffee when George was a student at USC Berkeley, and he took that love back to Boston and opened up The Coffee Connection, establishing a specialty coffee foothold on the east coast. I knew George sold The Coffee Connection to Starbucks in 1994, which they in turn used to establish their growing empire on the east coast.
(sidenote: Peet’s was not only ground zero in the rise of specialty coffee, but also inspired the founding of Starbucks, along with George’s founding of the Coffee Connection, establishing modern day specialty coffee on the east coast.)
In the fall of 2002, I found myself out in Boston for the fall Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) Committees Meetings. I was asked to join the (then) brand new Consumer Marketing Committee, because of how popular this website had become in a short time, and because they foolishly thought I knew something about consumers and specialty coffee. I met a lot of industry captains at that event, and finally got to meet Tom Owen (from SweetMarias) and Geoff Watts, partner and green bean buyer for Intelligentsia Coffee, and we all hit it off. The last day of the meetings, Geoff was introducing me around at a social event, and that’s when I met George Howell face to face for the first time. And it absolutely blew my mind that George knew who I was, and was very complimentary of what we were trying to do with CoffeeGeek.
That started a long, long relationship and sometimes-mentorship I had with George. The funny thing is, it didn’t start off great. I already wrote that I thought of myself as a bit of a fraud in 2002, 2003 in terms of specialty coffee and espresso knowledge, but being young and full of bravado, I dared to debate George in that first meeting on the science and trends in espresso. Back then there was a brief push towards the ristretto as the ultimate in espresso (so much so that Paul Bassett won the WBC in Boston later on in 2003 by pulling super tight ristretto shots); and I was full on a champion of the ristretto shot.
I actually dared to say to George, when he was discussing the process of espresso with me, that he was old school, and being left behind by the push towards better extractions, ristretto shots, and the like. Actually dared to say that to him.
But George is… well, if you know him, you know he’s as even tempered and kind as they come. He said something to me after over an hour’s debate back and forth that has stuck with me to this day. “Mark, when it comes to coffee and our collective knowledge of it, we’re barely out of childhood, and still have so much to learn. When it comes to espresso, something we’ve drunk for 100 years but really only for the last 50 years in its modern form, we’re barely out of the womb. We know nothing about espresso, yet.”
When I got home, I knew I made a huge mistake. Some kid in his early 30s, daring to challenge an absolute industry giant like George. To his credit, he never held that against me and even went so far as to always be kind and willing to share his knowledge with me ever since.
This was part of the reckoning I had with CoffeeGeek in 2002; I knew I couldn’t just bullshit my way through coffee and espresso knowledge. I’d have to actually study it and learn. And George was one of those folks I’ve learned a lot from. I’ve attended his lectures, his courses and classes at SCAA (and ones he helped author). I’ve had many conversations with him since. He’s been a guest on the CoffeeGeek podcast several times, and we’ve interviewed him on this website, again several times in the past two decades (here’s the earliest ones, which we’ve resurrected for our 20th Anniversary).
George helped me appreciate and understand coffee better. George helped me understand we’re in infancy when it comes to espresso science, technique, and evolution. George helped me understand roasting dynamics better. Helped me understand how coffee ages. How to cup it. How to score it. How to taste it. And in turn, that helped us share this information with the millions of readers of this website back in 2003 through 2017 (the last time we interviewed George). We once did a podcast with him about something he was pioneering – vac-sealing green coffee in airtight bags, and freezing it – and that broadcast led to literally hundreds of small coffee roasters exploring, and in many cases, adopting the same practice for their top shelf coffees. For years afterwards, we got emails about that podcast and George’s pioneering efforts. Here’s a few of the podcast interviews we did with George.
I am glad I got to know George. I’m even more glad he didn’t get perturbed or put off by a brash young coffee nerd daring to challenge his broad wealth of knowledge.
George Howell isn’t the only giant in the industry to help us chart our educational path on specialty coffee through this website. I’ve already mentioned a few in the previous two posts (Kent Bakke stands out, and he really needs his own write up on this website), but there’s a few more I’d be remiss in not mentioning.
Some, I only met briefly, but specialty coffee afforded me these opportunities. In 2008, I met Jane Goodall, and actually had a chance to chat with her about the venture she and Green Mountain Coffee were doing to use coffee to fund her programs. In 2003, I met the legend – Dr. Ernesto Illy, in Boston and and it made my coffee life when he knew of me and the CoffeeGeek website.
Some, I’ve spent a lot more time with.
Luigi Lupi, the fellow who invented latte art (David Schomer often gets mentioned, but Luigi was the first), was a very helpful influence on the latte art chapter in our Milk Guide when it was first published in 2003. I was taught pouring latte art by Vince Piccolo (then of Vancouver’s Caffe Artigiano) in 2002, but Luigi, in Boston in 2003, really took me to school on it and showed me techniques that stay with me to this day. Here’s a recent Zoom event with Mr. Lupi.
Speaking of David Schomer, he’s the fellow who was really pushing the ristretto as the be all, end all of espresso in 1997-2005 and beyond, but he’s also had a major influence on the espresso education we provided on CoffeeGeek in those early years. We had several writers who used Schomer as their source and background in early How To articles and espresso theory articles and discussions; David also taught me how to improve my latte art skills, but also taught me better ways to evaluate espresso.
Paul Bassett, the 2003 WBC Champion, TV Star, and owner of a chain of cafes in Australia and Japan took me to school over several days when he stayed at my house in Vancouver soon after attending the a coffee event in Seattle in 2004; I remember him drilling me for several hours on the prototype GS3 machine I had set up. Why mention this? Because it was essentially a hyper-intense master class in all things espresso and coffee that ended up being the foundation for hundreds of articles written on this website in later years. Paul’s the guy who taught me all about water and fluid bed dynamics in espresso. Paul gave me tools to analyse and diagnose problems with espresso. I’ve done my best in the years since to impart that knowledge on both our writers, and our readers.
Then there’s Tom Owen. If you roast coffee, you know who Tom Owen is. He’s the founder and owner of Sweet Marias. Tom literally taught me how to “taste” coffee; I found him wandering the show floor at a SCAA show in 2002 or 2004 (before the floor opened) and we ended up going to a cupping demonstration and Tom showed me how to really diagnose and evaluate coffee using your entire mouth.
And he’s taught thousands since, with one of my all time favourite low-budget YouTube videos, from 2009.
Probably the best podcast episode I ever had was one that featured both my Dad, and Tom Owen. I remember after that episode, emails came in saying people loved the interview and it seemed like Tom and I were old friends. The thing is, Tom and I are not particularly close (to the point now where if I email him, it’s like 20/80 that I’ll get a response). But every single time we do talk, it’s a comfortable, educational talk for me. Tom and his knowledge of green coffee and roasting methods was a major influence and factor in every bit of content we published on CoffeeGeek in the 2000s on those subjects.
In my first post in this 3 part series, I focused on Baratza and their role in the foundation and survival of CoffeeGeek in it’s earliest days. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention several other people and companies.
Another fellow has been supporting this website almost as long as Baratza, and that’s James Smith, the owner of 1st in Coffee. James was instrumental in introducing CoffeeGeek to several prominent vendors, including Capresso, Jura, and Delonghi. We had a really good run with Capresso in particular, reviewing almost all their major coffee and espresso products from 2003 through 2010 and James was instrumental in that. He also arranged for me to meet the folks from Elektra, and arranged for us to get the Elektra Micro Casa a Leva which was the foundation for my own personal love of lever espresso machines (the machine, along with it’s custom case, is still with me to this day).
James is also an illy cup collector like I am, and he’s been my main source for pretty much every illy collector cup set that’s come out since 2002. At one point, he had all of David Byrne’s personal Illy Cup collection (Byrne, the artist and musician, designed several cup sets for Illy) and he arranged for me to get an artist proof set of the illy aliens cups, direct from Byrne’s own stash.
Our site simply would not exist if it wasn’t for James and his support and mentorship.
Another “1st” company, 1st Line, was also a major supporter of this website from its earliest days. It’s owner, Jim Piccinich, was even a writer on our website for a time (here’s some of his articles, courtesy of the WayBack Machine). Jim’s the guy who taught me how to “pinch” coffee to determine if it was fine enough for espresso use (I should write a full article on that one day). He also helped sponsor our website’s trip to the 2003 SCAA show in Boston, which was really our first multi-day, multiple-times-per-day report from a trade show, one that set the standard we tried to follow for many years afterwards. Though 1st Line has not advertised on this website for several years now, we owe a huge part of our website’s success and well being to Jim’s support over many years.
There’s other vendors like that too, who were early supporters of CoffeeGeek, helping us develop and evolve the website in its first decade. It’s only because I personally failed in keeping CoffeeGeek relevant during the mid 2010s that several of them stopped their support: that’s entirely on me. Chris Nachtrieb of Chris’ Coffee is one of those people. Chris definitely a business-first kind of guy and expects a lot from people, but he also opened a lot of doors for this website back in the 2000s, introduced a lot of his customers to the website (indeed, he made deals with customers if they’d write reviews in our consumer review section). He’s another one of those businesses who made CoffeeGeek possible to exist through the 2000s and early 2010s.
Then there’s Gary Zalzman, the founder and co-owner of Whole Latte Love. He was also there from nearly the beginning with CoffeeGeek. Gary also made connections for me with Gaggia, Krups, Rancilio, Expobar, and Saeco, which in turn provided us with tons of content and products to review in the 2000s. Gary is a true pioneer in this business, and Whole Latte Love has turned out to be pretty much the premier US-based vendor of high end espresso equipment, not only in products offered, but education and expertise offered to their customers (and even non customers can learn a lot about espresso and equipment from them).
The way I met Gary set the tone for what kind of business person he is to his customers. I bought a Rancilio Silvia back in late 1998 from another US-based vendor. The machine developed a problem a year or two later with something inside, and I had a bad run in with a Canadian Rancilio vendor who refused to sell me the repair part because I didn’t buy the machine from him. Gary found out about this, and at his own cost, shipped me the replacement part. I was a nobody back then in terms of the specialty coffee world (Gary had heard about it through the alt.coffee newsgroup), but he still did it. I was so impressed that I bought my next espresso machine (a Pasquini Livia) from his company, which was only a couple years old at the time.
Whole Latte Love was one of our biggest supporters from 2002 through 2016; we were so glad to see them come back with the launch of this new website last year, and we have some big plans on exciting content planned in conjunction with them for this year.
That wraps up our three part series of the people and companies who helped make CoffeeGeek what it was, and is today. This is by no means the only groups and people who helped enrich our website. The list of those is in the tens of thousands. We had over 1 million forum posts, including those by people who have gone on to become industry leaders, company founders and influencers in the specialty coffee realm. It even includes a few folks who have gone on to become TikTok sensations and YouTube mega stars. I could write another 25,000 words and not cover even 1/10th of all the amazing people who have been a part of this website’s progression.
But here’s to the next 20 years and a lot more exploration of specialty coffee and espresso, and all the people who will be part of the experience!