George Howell Coffee
Somerville Bread Company
Sometimes you don’t know a good thing till it’s gone. For George Howell, that thing was coffee. Spoiled by the java in Berkeley, California, he relocated to Boston in the early ’70s and confronted a harsh reality: This was not the lighter roast coffee with nuanced flavor he knew and loved. And so he set his sights on enlightening locals about what a cup of joe should taste like.
Flash forward a couple decades, and George Howell is granted a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Specialty Coffee Association of America for his dedication to achieving just that. It all started with Coffee Connection, a hip Harvard Square café Howell opened in 1975. What set its approach apart was a focus on single-origin coffees as opposed to mixed-source blends. “Blends are always inferior, relying on lower-cost coffees for the most part and maintaining sources in a state on anonymity,” Howell says, adding that quality coffee depends on making the farmer a “known, proud, equal participant.” By the ’90s, Coffee Connection had 24 Boston area locations. In 1994, Howell sold the successful chain to Starbucks.
With that chapter closed, Howell spent the next decade traveling to coffee-producing countries as a consultant. Eager to apply the knowledge and experience he’d amassed, the coffee guru then embarked on a new venture, launching George Howell Coffee Roasters in 2004. The company adheres to the same philosophy regarding single-estate coffees and espressos, as evidenced by its signature Terroir line. The word itself, a French term that embodies the connection between soil, topography, climate, and local knowledge, is often used to describe how wine is shaped by its local environment—and arguably just as applicable to java. That’s clear when perusing George Howell’s online store: Coffees are searchable not only by country and roast profile but also by flavor notes comparable to those of wine, such as “citrus-apple,” “jammy-spicy,” and “floral-berry.”
Another way that Howell distinguishes his brand is by freezing raw coffee in vacuum and special-plastic airtight bags until roasting. This strategy slows the oxidation (aging) process, thus preserving its flavor. Given that high-quality beans are typically only harvested once a year, it’s a crucial measure to prevent them from going stale quickly.
George Howell Coffee now boasts four locations: the roastery in Acton, a Newtonville café, a café at The Godfrey Hotel in Boston, and an outpost at the Boston Public Market. The roastery is, for all intents and purposes, the headquarters—coffee is stored and roasted here, and quality control executed, orders fulfilled, and baristas trained. Customers placing orders online can pick them up here and taste some samples while they’re at it. The Newtonville location, just 30 minutes from downtown Boston, serves as a coffee lab, where the company tests brew methods and equipment and gathers feedback on new coffees. In addition to offering George Howell’s full range of drips and two espressos, it serves limited-roast coffees and pastries from local bakeries.
The third location, at Downtown Crossing’s The Godfrey Hotel, features an espresso bar and hand-poured coffee cuppings plus tastings, flights, and a number of specialty beverages. The menu features a selection of pastries, tartines, and other small bites for breakfast and lunch (think ginger apricot scones, maple bacon doughnut balls, and frittata sandwiches). Additionally, this outpost hosts a variety of educational group classes. Visitors can demo and purchase brewing equipment on-site, such as French presses, grinders, and electric and pour-over brewers. Patrons are welcome to bring in said equipment anytime for a diagnosis if they’re struggling to get the same results as the café.
In August 2015, George Howell began serving up coffee and espresso at the Boston Public Market. As a vendor, the stall also sells an assortment of coffees and brewing equipment (Chemex brewers, filters, and grinders). Howell himself has led a number of classes in the market’s 3,000-square-foot kitchen as part of his series “The Long Road to Quality.” Attendees have the opportunity to pick the brain of the master himself, tasting different coffees from around the world, learning to compare ripe to unripe coffee, and more. Coffee farmers and entrepreneurs also pop up as guest speakers, too, offering insight into the challenges of producing quality coffee.
To get the full experience, though, we suggest stopping by the flagship café at The Godfrey Hotel. Scope out a monthly calendar on the company’s website for upcoming events, which have included BYO coffee potluck cuppings, courses on espresso extraction, and palate training for different coffee flavor categories. Once you’re a full-blown convert, you can join George Howell’s coffee club for automatic home or office delivery of your go-to cuppa.