NEWTON - In 1975, George Howell opened his first Coffee Connection cafe and put Greater Boston at the forefront of US coffee thinking (and drinking).
The chain, which began in Harvard Square and eventually extended to four states, introduced Howell’s philosophy of finding exquisite coffees from a single farm, and roasting lightly to bring out indigenous floral, fruit, and spice flavors. Today, that approach is widely emulated. Twenty years after the Coffee Connection began, it had become so successful (and some say, with 24 locations, overextended) that a new Seattle company called Starbucks bought and eventually absorbed the chain to launch an uncontested conquest of the East Coast.
Last week, Howell opened George Howell Coffee, his first coffeehouse in 15 years, prompting speculation that another empire is in the works.
In the intervening years, Howell, 66, has been a consultant and outspoken commentator, and has become one of the most respected roasters and figures in the coffee world. His pricey “Terroir’’ beans, roasted in Acton and available at specialty food shops, average an unmatched 93 (of 100) at Coffee Review, a well-known ratings website. They have been barely marketed, and Terroir’s packaging is straight out of the 1970s.
Dressed in tweed, Howell is professorial and uncharacteristically coy about whether this is a new chain. “It’s the first of a few, maybe the first of many,’’ he says. “Locations in Boston and Cambridge would be next.’’
This time around Howell will have plenty of competition, some from the coffee nerds who learned from him. Lighter roasting, especially single-estate beans, has become a hallmark of the newest generation of cafes. Chris Dadey, owner of single-estate focused Render Coffee in the South End, was a Coffee Connection regular in the 1990s. “We used to come up from Niantic [Conn.] and go to Tang records in Harvard Square. There was a Coffee Connection there,’’ Dadey says. “I discovered there are actually regions, and you can taste them. Before then, we were hanging out at Friendly’s for all-you-can-drink coffee, which was burnt and awful, of course, but I didn’t understand that. None of us did.’’
How well Howell’s eminence grise will compete in a coffee world charged with equal amounts of fashion, attitude, and caffeine remains to be seen. Ever the smart businessman, Howell has hired away some of Boston’s young roastery talent, giving himself his own bearded hipsters in knit caps. His daughter, Jennifer, was in Kenya visiting plantations as the new cafe opened, and his son, Nathaniel, works on the business side and composes edgy tweets on behalf of the company.
The clean and understated George Howell Coffee cafe is a narrow storefront that seats 20, with red Italian stools in a row at a counter. You can get drip coffee, single pour-over cups, espresso, baked goods, and housemade crepes.
After the sale to Starbucks (for a price “in the tens of millions,’’ says Howell), a non-compete clause required that he exit the US industry for seven years. So he went abroad - to Brazil, Kenya, and elsewhere - on behalf of a United Nations committee charged with improving bean quality in marginally productive countries. On dirt roads and in helicopters he made his way to small farms, refining his (and now our) understanding of the relationship between coffee beans and their so-called “terroir,’’ the combination of the land and climate where they were grown.
By 1999 Howell had founded a series of national competitions where the best of these small growers could submit their beans to be “cupped’’ (tasted and judged) by an international panel, and then sold at auction. These “Cup of Excellence’’ events, and the copy-cat auctions they inspired, have become a major force in today’s specialty coffee market. A winning grower in Panama sold his “Hacienda La Esmeralda’’ harvest for a stunning $77 a pound this year. After shipping and roasting (which reduces the weight by about 20 percent), the beans will retail for over $120 a pound. Cafes in New York and Toronto are serving the brewed coffee for up to $15 a cup.
Such prices speak to the degree to which a growing segment of today’s coffee drinkers have come to appreciate what Howell has been preaching. At a tasting event to celebrate the opening of the cafe, Howell is at it again, narrating a flight of coffees arranged by country and altitude (3,000 to 6,000 feet, smoky to floral). At the end, everyone is offered a cup of the Esmeralda. Tattooed hipsters slurp and shiver while amused grandmothers detect notes of rosewater and stone fruit. It’s persuasive evangelism. The differences are obvious and wonderful, and the experience creates new devotees.
Unlike the beans he has championed, Howell’s new coffeehouses promise to be a blend. San Francisco designers are creating hip new branding for the unified company (coffeehouses and roastery), and younger faces will be part of the mix. And George Howell Coffee has one thing competitors can’t match: the urbane professor himself, guiding the way.
Ike DeLorenzo can be reached at email@example.com.