George Howell’s obsession with coffee has taken him all over the world in search of the best beans, the highest-quality production, and the perfect cup—even into the bathroom at Howard Johnson.
In 1975, driving cross-country from Berkeley to Boston, Howell couldn’t stand the coffee that was offered at diners and doughnut shops. So he used to bring his coffee beans and grinder into the men’s room at Howard Johnson motels and prepare his own.
“Coffee was wooden pellets, painted brown, that you ground into sawdust,” he remembers. “We saw a dire need and a real opportunity, and the Coffee Connection was born.”
Howell founded the Coffee Connection, the chain of Boston area coffee shops, in Harvard Square in 1975 and is now the owner of Terroir Coffee, a business that aims to change the relationship between coffee farmers and purveyors. He led a tasting workshop at “Food, Culture, and Society,” a conference held at Metropolitan College from June 7 to 11, and guided coffee enthusiasts through the basics of finding a good coffee and brewing a good cup.
To find a great coffee, drink it cold. “One of the things I would like to see our culture move away from is that superhot cup of coffee that blows you out as soon as it comes to your mouth,” says Howell. Letting coffee cool reveals its true flavors, he explains, and a coffee that tastes good cold will consistently be good coffee.
Don’t be intimidated by higher prices. Coffee that costs just $3 or $4 per pound, Howell advises, is usually made from the beans that coffee farmers discard because they’re underripe or moldy. Although expensive coffee seems like a luxury, Howell notes that one 12-ounce glass from a $10 bottle of wine—considered a bargain—costs as much as six 12-ounce cups from a $20 pound of coffee.
For best quality, avoid blends. “Twenty to 30 years ago, all coffees were the same,” recalls Howell. But now that specialty companies and new farming techniques have made regional coffees widely available, “it should no longer be permissible for people to be selling blends.” Blends are often a way to disguise a crop that’s not as good.
Brew as hot as possible. Ideally, drip coffee should be brewed with a paper filter and with water that’s between 195 and 205 degrees. At home Howell uses a Capresso machine (which retails starting at $99).
Know your beans. A lot of factors affect the way coffee tastes, and the best way to find out what’s best is to taste and ask questions. Coffees from Sumatra and Brazil, for example, are grown in flat regions and tend to have lower acidity. Colombian and East African coffees are grown at higher altitudes and have a “brighter” flavor that is often “more floral.” Hawaiian and Jamaican coffees, often marketed as high-quality, depend heavily on the crop and production.