I am both very particular and a little bit basic when it comes to coffee. For years, I cared about things like single-origin beans and burr grinders and Hario kettles. There was a period when I roasted my own on the fire escape using a rejiggered popcorn popper, the toasty smell of coffee spreading out over the neighborhood along with floating bits of chaff.
After all that, I had the perfect cup while staying with friends, and it turned out to be Peet’s Major Dickason’s Blend, a dark-roast “incomparable world blend” I can buy at the grocery store pre-ground. I brew it in the electric coffeemaker my visiting parents gave us when they could no longer stand waiting for the Chemex to mete out their morning caffeine. Welcome to adult life, when strong coffee needs to happen as quickly and painlessly as possible.
I was perfectly happy with this arrangement until in March the German tabloid Bild Am Sonntag reported that the family behind Peet’s parent company JAB Holding had been staunch supporters of the Third Reich, and in fact had built their fortune via Nazi Germany’s large-scale forced-labor system. Honcho Albert Reimann Sr. was a card-carrying Nazi who made donations to the SS, Hitler’s paramilitary force, in the early 1930s. In 1937, according to the New York Times, Albert Reimann Jr. wrote a letter to Heinrich Himmler: “We are a purely Aryan family business that is over 100 years old,” it read. “The owners are unconditional followers of the race theory.”
Should we eat food that exists due to circumstances we find morally reprehensible? JAB’s large portfolio also includes Stumptown, Intelligentsia, Keurig, and other coffee companies, along with Panera, Dr. Pepper, Einstein Bros. Bagels, Krispy Kreme, Insomnia Cookies, and many more. Today the Reimanns are reportedly Germany’s second-richest family, with a fortune that was estimated at 33 billion euros (about $37 billion) last year.
I can’t say I’ve ever had an Einstein Bros. bagel (although a company with a Nazi past profiting off a Jewish bread product certainly seems relevant to the current conversation around cultural appropriation). I could happily live the rest of my days without eating another Krispy Kreme doughnut. But I do love Peet’s coffee. It is part of my daily life. And I don’t like Nazis, who, despite what I learned in Hebrew school, are not a Bad Thing That Once Happened but very much still with us. In 2018, the Anti-Defamation League recorded 1,879 anti-Semitic incidents in the United States, the third-highest annual figure since the organization began keeping track four decades ago and up 48 percent from 2016.
So can I just keep sipping, nothing to see here? No one in my Jewish family would ever purchase a Volkswagen, a company founded around Hitler’s idea that the average German citizen should be able to afford a car. (Jews were forbidden from having cars or driver’s licenses after Kristallnacht. #notallvolks) I haven’t hungered to cook a Mario Batali recipe since sexual misconduct allegations were made against the chef, and I feel weird when a Michael Jackson song comes on and I reflexively start chair-dancing. We all live with these conflicts. Museums and universities are rethinking their ties with the Sackler family, behind Oxycontin maker Purdue Pharma; Boston decided to rename Yawkey Way based on its namesake’s racist past; and so on.
On the other hand, the younger generation of Reimanns are doing the work — or at least some work — to learn about their family history and make amends in the form of cold hard cash. In 2014, they commissioned a still-in-the-works report looking into their Nazi past, and they plan to give 10 million euros (about $11 million) to charity. Contacted last week, a representative for JAB Holding said there are currently no additional details to add about the donation, and that the timetable for making it is forthcoming; another representative indicated more information would be available this month.
(Editor’s note: On June 14, a New York Times story announced that the 10 million euros will be donated to “institutions that help former forced laborers and their families.” The Reimanns have also created the Alfred Landecker Foundation, which will use its annual budget of about $28 million to “raise awareness of the Holocaust and support and promote projects in research and education,” according to the foundation’s website.)
It is a question too complicated to answer on my own. I need to consult an expert.
I call up Nir Eisikovits, associate professor of philosophy and director of the Applied Ethics Center at UMass-Boston. He writes about transitional justice and how countries come to terms with their past; recently he’s been working on a project dealing with the legacy of controversial memorials and monuments. Surely he’ll have a clear answer for me.
Although the real onus is on the company, he says, I’m not off the hook: “Consumers are who can exert pressure, so you have a responsibility.”
It is a slippery slope, however. “The same kind of logic that calls for a boycott potentially, if you’re not careful in how you use it, can lead to the emptying out of a lot of what’s valuable to you from your life. You stop drinking the coffee, you stop listening to Wagner, you stop reading Dostoevsky, Kant, and everything he contributed to the canon because he was a crazy racist. On the force of the moral argument, you can move from coffee to Dostoevsky pretty quickly.”
I don’t want to stop reading Dostoevsky.
This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t examine these things and take action accordingly, Eisikovits says. But we have to do it on a case-by-case basis. Some things to consider: How severe was the action? How much time has elapsed and what has happened since? How has the company’s attitude changed? How sincere have reparative gestures been? “Any acknowledgment is powerful, morally and politically,” he says. “It really changes how people behave.”
Profiting from forced labor and being Nazis: pretty bad. Commissioning a report on your family’s past, pledging a large sum of money (albeit a small percentage of your wealth) to charity, and acknowledging wrongdoing: pretty good. “Reimann Senior and Reimann Junior were guilty,” Peter Harf, a managing partner of JAB Holding, told Bild. “The two men have passed away, but they actually belonged in prison.”
I contact my friend Ever Meister. Help! Coffee emergency! A longtime coffee professional, Meister does communications for a coffee importing company and is the author of the book “New York City Coffee: A Caffeinated History.” (She is also a former Globe co-op.) Can she can help me find an alternative I’ll like as much as Major Dickason’s but will feel better about drinking? I describe the coffee to her.
“A couple of things come to mind,” she says. When buying coffee, I want to look for words like spicy, nutty, dark chocolate, and earthy. “I don’t exactly know what Major Dickason’s blend would be, but if I had to guess, probably a Brazilian, probably Central American — maybe Honduran or Nicaragua or Guatemala, although Guatemala can be pretty fruity — then probably an Indonesian coffee as well. Just judging by the fact that the coffee has to hold up to the roast, and it has to be affordable, that’s the profile I would look for.”
But when it comes to coffee, she points out, ethics are all relative: “Are you going to worry about whether it’s bad for the environment, or keeps people in a cycle of, more or less, slavery, or the barista repetitive strain injury? It’s such a huge global industry, so steeped in colonialism and tied to an aggressively capitalist colonial market, you could have a different ethical quandary every day of the week.” Oh.
A local company is a good bet, though. There’s more transparency, she says. “You don’t necessarily want your coffee roaster to be your new BFF, but there are ways to get to know the humans behind the company in a way that can help mitigate the question of: Is this coming from dirty money?” As a starting point, she suggests the Vienna roast from Barrington Coffee Roasting Company, based in Massachusetts.
I order some, along with two dark-roast blends, Commonwealth and Gato Negro. The Vienna roast is really good. The Commonwealth is even better. And with the Gato Negro, described as “rich, smooth, dark chocolate,” I hit the jackpot. It’s now our house coffee.
I still miss my Major Dickason’s a little, though. I hope one day I’ll drink it again. Anti-Semitism is on the rise once more in Germany, where last week an official warned Jews against wearing the kippah in public, due to an increase in attacks. In response, many Germans donned the skullcap, in solidarity and protest. At this turning point, it is a real opportunity for JAB Holding — hardly the only company with a Nazi past — to lead by example.