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June 1, 2003

Peet now calls Medford his home

By GREG STILES
Mail Tribune

The West’s foremost roaster and inspiration for the gourmet coffee boom now lives in Medford.

Alfred Peet, the 83-year-old Dutch native whom Starbucks chairman Howard Schultz calls the company’s spiritual grandfather, still casts an imposing shadow over the expanding industry.

"Some people think I’m am inveterate coffee drinker," he teases. "Well, I’m an inveterate taster. I like strong and little, instead of weaker and a lot like an American.

"Someone tells me that real coffee drinkers drink five or six mugs a day, and I look into it and ask ‘Is it tea or coffee?’ "

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Peet moved to Medford from Berkeley two years ago and contentedly views the world from the eighth floor of Rogue Valley Manor. But he’s been known to drop in to check out local roasters.

"He stopped in one day, while I was roasting coffee," says Hank Rogers of Grizzly Peak Roasting Co. in Ashland.

"He said, ‘I’ve spent a lot of my life roasting coffee and I had a little roaster in the Berkeley area. I said, ‘You must know Alfred Peet,’ and he said ‘I am Peet.’ "

His hearing may be a bit faulty, but his keen palate keeps him in demand nearly two decades after he sold Peet’s Coffee & Tea to protégé Jerry Baldwin.

"I have two bags in the freezer of samples from colleagues and from people for whom I have been consulting," he says. "If it’s good coffee I will mix them when the spirit moves."

He gladly engages in taste testing — on a diminished scale. Almost apologetically, he says he could put together a small testing table in five minutes.

"A fellow from Europe air-mailed me a bunch of samples not long ago," Peet says. "I did an evaluation and faxed it to him."

A tea-taster by trade, Peet left Europe to work in the Dutch East Indies following World War II, later moving to New Zealand before arriving in the Bay area.

One day while laboring for an exporter in San Francisco he posed a question to a co-worker.

" ‘I came to the richest country in world, so why are they drinking the lousiest coffee?’ " Peet recalls.

His friend told him that American coffee had been much better before the war, but because hundreds of thousands soldiers and sailors got used to Army-issue coffee, expectations declined.

"The same thing happened in Europe after the war because they couldn’t get the same quality of beans and people were much more concerned about rebuilding," Peet says. "A lot of taste was lost and had to be brought back for a new generation not brought up on the stuff before the war."

In April 1966, he was roasting coffee at Walnut and Vine, blocks away from the University of California at Berkeley. He bristles at a recent article noting he set up shop in Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto.

"There are a lot of half-truths floating around out there," Peet says. "I started, and the Gourmet Ghetto evolved eventually.

"By word of mouth time and again people came from whatever country and said, ‘At long last. That’s how coffee used to be back at home,’ " Peet recalls.

Soon, an Armenian opened up an imported cheese store, and other specialty shops followed.

"There was a Chinese laundry next to me, there was an old lady who sold second-hand paperbacks, a shoemaker across the street and Mahaffie’s drug store," he recalls. "There had been a paint store where I was and it had been empty for two years; that’s how dead the neighborhood was."

Marketing wasn’t one of Peet’s priorities, but he developed a following just the same.

"The product sells for me, the coffee talks for me," he says. "If the customer likes the coffee, they come back. Hills Brothers and Folgers talk, talk, talk about how beautiful their coffee is, but I could beat them with my coffee."

In 1971, Peet taught the original owners of Starbucks — Gerald Baldwin, Zev Siegl and Gordon Bowker — the art of selecting flavorful Arabica green coffee beans and coaxing flavor from each bean through dark roasting.

For two years he supplied the company with beans before suggesting it develop another source.

"I told them I’d do it for a while," he says. "I told them if it gets too big that would be dangerous and that if something happens to me your coffee business would be finished overnight."

In 1984, Baldwin, Peet’s one-time roaster, bought the company and in 2001 it became a publicly traded firm.

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 776-4463 or e-mail business@mailtribune.com




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