Q&A with George

Did you have another career in mind before coffee? If so what?

I did have another career in mind. Murky vision may be a better way to express what was in mind at the time. Back in the sixties, many of us “kids” were not thinking so much about careers as we were about changing the world.

The story below is about the art that has been hanging at my cafes since 1975 when I opened The Coffee Connection, and which can be seen at our Downtown Crossing café (showing two works by Jose Benitez Sanchez) as well as Newtonville (4 works by Tutukila). That comprised my first career.

While at Yale in the early sixties, I gravitated towards the arts–music, painting, and literature. I spent many weekends in New York City going to avant-garde jazz concerts at night (John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler….), and visiting art galleries and museums in the day. I was not so driven to create as to absorb and discover what others communicated in unimagined ways. I was struck with awe and wonder by the unfolding discoveries my eyes and ears received. At one point I financed, with the little money I had, and promoted jazz artists Milford Graves and Don Pullen to give a concert at Yale. I was already gravitating toward showing others what I was discovering. (Sound familiar?) My co-conspirator was Juan Negrin. We had become fast friends in Mexico City where I grew up as a teenager and later went to Yale together. Juan was already a driven artist and thinker of great originality. That is another story…. But what he did next would alter my trajectory in this world.

In the early seventies Juan became involved with the Wixarika people in the Central Sierra Madre of Mexico. It started with their art that was being exhibited in Guadalajara. These were the early days of “yarn paintings”. They were made by pressing colored yarn, a single strand at a time, into softened beeswax laid over a wooden panel. They were about the mythological stories of people popularly called the Huichol – a name given to the Wixarika (x is pronounced like a cross between and soft J and sh) by the West. He went to the city of Tepic where yarn paintings were becoming ubiquitous in a growing number of tourist stores selling indigenous crafts. There, he found a handful of artists who were producing originals that were then copied by craftsmen and sold in stores. He challenged them to return to their roots to create meaningful art with ever deeper expressions of their religion, not to be confused with folklore! This meant going back into the mountains, committing to religious pilgrimages, and learning from established shamans more deeply about their religion. Juan then followed them to the mountains and began deepening his relationship with the Wixarika culture.

By that time, Laurie and I had moved to the San Francisco bay area where Juan was living. Juan began bringing back the yarn paintings he had bought to the San Francisco Bay area. I was blown away by the originality and vitality of the art I saw. There were four artists to begin with, and it was easy to tell their styles apart. With year each artist evolved, developing a unique, ever expanding visual language and greater thematic depth as they participated in the life and rituals of their culture. Here was a living art brimming with beauty and extraordinary individual creativity

I spent the next few years working in a local art gallery in Berkeley near the University campus, explaining the Wixarika works that Juan was bringing back from his long visits to their territory. This culminated when I set up and “curated” a Masterworks exhibit at the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery in January 1974. The “Masterworks” were what he deemed the most important paintings, held back from sale to be exhibited in museums as ambassadors of the complex Wixarika culture and testaments to their artistic visions.

As soon as the show ended, Laurie and I departed in a used Volvo station wagon with two children in tow and a third on the way, headed for Boston. We were going to visit a friend and then presumably return to Yale to finish my studies; it never happened. Every morning we stopped for breakfast on our drive to Boston. I would take my coffee stash to the men’s room, grind the beans there, and then go order hot water. I would then pour them into our French Press. We never failed to attract attention.

Within days of arriving in Boston, we had run out of the freshly roasted, quality coffee we had brought with us from the birthplace of specialty coffee. We quickly realized that Boston was a desert of brown painted pellets in bins and barrels that one ground into sawdust. It dawned on Laurie and me that there was a real opportunity to produce a thriving coffee culture here, similar to what we had experienced in the San Francisco Bay area. We could support our kids, have our coffee, and – as it would turn out, become a beacon of Wixarika art that would, in some small measure, help their culture weather its challenges to existence and successful evolution

We knew nothing about coffee and there was no one on the East Coast who could act as a mentor. We reached out to the pioneering green coffee importer Erna Knutsen in San Francisco for our first green coffee beans. She helped us get a used coffee roaster from Germany. Over the next thirteen years we would buy 90% of our beans from her and ship them by truck from San Fransisco to Boston at considerable extra expense. She was that much better than anyone else.

Our first café opened in April 1975 in the heart of Harvard Square. We learned how to roast on our own through trial and errors, plural – and there were a lot of them. But the public mobbed us anyway. We had customers jump behind the counter to wash our dishes and refuse payment. It truly was a unique time. We were on the major TV channels within the first three months of opening. We never looked back.

And there on the walls, for all twenty years that we existed, were the yarn paintings. Our proximity to Harvard University led to several major collectors of the art, and to doors opening which brought resources to Juan Negrin’s endeavors. He went on to work with the Wixarika by forming a non-profit organization to protect their environment, and to introduce small community industries making looms and furniture from their forests as a working alternative to timber interests bent on clearcutting. The Coffee Connection was a magnet that enabled Juan to receive aid from Cultural Survival, and through them, Bread for the World. It led to exhibitions at Harvard University and Northeastern University. A major European tour was arranged by someone coming through our café. Finally, in 1986, the four great Wixarika artists that Juan worked with were exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in Mexico City, a great milestone where indigenous artists were normally treated as folk art only.

What is the story behind the first coffee farm you partnered with?

We do not have partnerships, strictly speaking. We have relationships; A few are short-lived and others evolve into relationships that are more deeply rooted. They are always based on quality. Many years ago we decided our first commitment was to our customers: we promise them top quality coffees and that is what we will deliver. Sometimes we will get an outstanding sample from an importer, farmer, or from a competition like The Cup of Excellence and buy the coffee. We then hope to purchase that coffee again, but only if the sample is really good. We will visit that farm during its next harvest and assess the quality. If we are still buying from that farm three years later, we are clearly forming a relationship based on trust that each is committed to quality.

Some relationships end because the farmer has retired and no one younger follows in her footsteps. This was the case with one farmer in Colombia; She produced a Caturra that was extraordinary in its sweetness and complexity. She retired, her kids switched away from Caturra, and the quality we sought was gone. Another farmer who won the Cup of Excellence produced very high quality for several years, but as he grew, he moved from focusing on the traditional Caturra variety towards more productive, disease resistant hybrids. The Caturras became more generic. When we asked that the lots, which we were not in love with but definitely interested in, be separated by variety so we could assess each, the family refused. End of relationship.

Other relationships have become very solid. La Minita is a large farm I have been buying from since 1988 when I had The Coffee Connection. We are still quite a small roaster and are one of its many buyers. La Soledad, in Guatemala, a medium-sized farm, is another prime example. We have 100% trust based on many years of purchasing. We bring staff members there each year for them to learn and see for themselves. This is a prime example of the next generation enthusiastically leading the family farm tradition to new heights. Raul and Jose, the two sons of Henio and Mercedes Perez, have built a cupping room and analyze every lot they produce. In both cases we are still assiduous in cupping individual lots to find the gems.

The closest we have come to a partnership, but with no strings attached, is with Mamuto in Kenya. If ever a coffee farm deserved the name “Grand Cru” this is the one. For four years we have been contributing to their infrastructure. In 2017, owners Walter and Abishagi, announced their retirement. They passed the farm onto their three sons: Jason, Patrick, and Peter Mathagu. The past two harvests have been disastrous; Two years ago a fungal disease called “Coffee Berry Disease” struck twice in two weeks, followed by a very rare night of freezing temperatures. Their volume went down to 20%. What was left, at least, was very good quality. This past harvest was worse. Rains were unrelenting during a time that was supposed to be dry, drastically affecting the maturation of the coffee and, even more so, the drying of the beans. Once again, the crop was reduced to near nothing. The shipment is currently on its way to us. We continue to contribute, even with our cafes closed.

As we grow our relationships will continue to expand and evolve. We believe in putting farms front and center and that will continue to be our mission. That is why we only have one blend, Alchemy. But here we are at another topic – for future discussion!

Has anything to your knowledge ever scored a perfect 100 at Cup of Excellence?

Never has a Cup of Excellence international jury altogether scored any coffee a perfect 100. At the Brazil CoE competition last October, however, a single juror, Silvio Leite, did give a 100 score to the coffee that turned out to be the #1 prizewinner. The coffee that garnered the top prize at 92.23 points hailed from farmer André Luis Aguila Ribeiro of the Pai e Filho farm. This coffee finished just slightly above #2 at 92.15. Silvio is one of the best cuppers I know, and this particular competition, in my opinion, had a strong, unified jury with exceptional ability.

A 100 pt score by even a single juror is an exceedingly rare event. Silvio has been a head judge since CoE’s inception in 1999; it was the first time he gave 100 points to a coffee. A coffee has to be remarkable to be a Presidential winner by getting 90 or over points. Some CoE competitions have no scores of 90 or over.

Juries are composed of twenty-four jurors from around the world. While they are often in overall agreement about the great ones, there are always variations in the scoring. I think the highest score ever given by a jury was around 96 – which is amazing, given its diversity. A 96 given by one jury in one country may not be the equal of a coffee given a 92 in another competition at another time by a different jury. Every international jury has its team of cuppers with their experiences, their preferences, and their customers’ preferences.

Juries vary quite a bit. For the first time a Cup of Excellence (CoE) jury cupped randomly ordered Pulped Naturals, Naturals and Anaerobic Natural processed lots on the same tables. In the past, the competitions separated the processes to allow jurors to compare “apples to apples.” I frankly expected the Anaerobic Natural and Natural coffees to crush the more delicate, far less fruity Pulped Naturals. But more subtle traditional Pulped Naturals held their own, taking 3rd, 7th and 9th place in the top ten.

Jurors at a CoE event cup 10 coffees at a time, spending 45 minutes in verbal silence and inchoate slurping from hot to room temperature. They then go into a separate room and compare scores and notes while the next set of tables are prepared. Not all juries agree. A few years ago, there were a few juries that became very divided between those wanting coffees with classical, clean flavors and those preferring wildly fruity cups. My recent Brazil experience makes me think we are evolving for the better as we learn from each other and discover facets in our examinations and discussions that broaden our appreciation.

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