Alfred Peet; Put Buzz In Gourmet Coffee

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 1, 2007

Alfred Peet, 87, a Dutch tea trader who started the gourmet coffee craze in the United States with his rich, darkly roasted, high-altitude beans and taught the trade to the founders of Starbucks and sold them their first year's supply, died Aug. 29 at his home in Ashland, Ore.

His company, Peet's Coffee & Tea, from which he retired in 1983, announced his death. The cause was not reported.

Mr. Peet, known as the grandfather of specialty coffee, opened his first store in Berkeley, Calif., in 1966. Appalled by American coffee, he insisted on hand-roasting beans, using techniques he had learned in Europe and Indonesia.

Coffee aficionados swear by Peet's, asserting that it is superior to mass-merchandised products. In 1971, when the three founders of Starbucks decided to open a gourmet coffee store in Seattle's Pike Place Market, they sought Mr. Peet. He insisted that they go to his store to learn about coffee before he would sell them a single bean. The trio became believers in the dark-roasting method Mr. Peet used, and even after they stopped buying beans from him, they followed the technique.

In 1984, a year after Mr. Peet retired, the original Starbucks partners bought the Peet's chain. Three years later, they sold Starbucks to Howard Schultz but kept Peet's. The company went public in 2001.

Peet's is bean-sized compared to Starbucks, but it has played a significant role in the development of the U.S. coffee culture.

"I am not a genius, but I have had very long training," Mr. Peet said in Inc. magazine in 2001.

He was born in Alkmaar, the Netherlands, and learned the trade by helping his father in the family's coffee-roasting facility before World War II. He spent the war in a forced-labor camp where, working on a lathe, "I put grease in the machine, not oil, and it plugged up. The guard explained it to me. I never forgot it -- preventive maintenance is better than working a machine until it cracks," he told Inc.

After the war, Mr. Peet joined Lipton Tea in London as an apprentice. He later set out for Indonesia, then still a Dutch colony, where he worked for a tea business. He moved to San Francisco in 1955 and found a job in the coffee-importing business of E.A. Johnson & Co. But the quality of imported Central American beans dismayed him.

"Before I started, people were drinking Folgers and Hills Bros., and I thought, 'God, no, there must be something better,' " he told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2001.

He found a spot for a small shop on a rundown street in north Berkeley. He installed a coffee roaster in the back, and soon, the rich aroma of beans from Costa Rica, Guatemala and East Africa attracted local residents. There were, and still are, no tables at the original location, but there is often a line of customers. The area developed into Berkeley's "gourmet ghetto," home to famed restaurant Chez Panisse.

Gourmet coffee was a trend on the West Coast long before it reached middle America or the East Coast. While Starbucks boomed and dozens of other companies found niches, Peet's emulated the business model of companies such as Godiva and Tiffany & Co., specialty businesses that focus on multichannel distribution. Unlike its competitors, which rely on drink sales, Peet's makes a large portion of its revenue from sales of its beans and teas in 134 stores, through mail orders and in grocery stores.

In time, Mr. Peet became the grand old man of American coffee. Corby Kummer, in a 1990 Atlantic article about coffee, described meeting him.

"He immediately made it clear that we wouldn't be tasting any coffee together. 'A speed course doesn't exist,' he said. 'The tongue is crude. The nose does the work and tells the flaws.' He motioned for me to sit down in the living room, away from any coffee-making equipment, and spoke for a time on the importance of evaluating green beans before roasting and grinding them. . . . After several hours of listening, I began to wonder if I would be allowed any contact with coffee at all."

Mr. Peet told the Chronicle in 2001 that he wished for a return to the days when he ran a single shop in Berkeley.

"I'd rather see 1,000 fellows running their own stores than what we have now," he said. "If I wasn't so old, I'd open a small store and scour the world for the very best coffee you could find."

Survivors include a daughter; a sister; and two grandchildren.

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