September 03, 2007

The Man Behind Starbucks

Alfred Peet, onetime Berkeley resident, founder of Berkeley's original Peet's Coffee and Tea, and the person who almost single-handedly made the Bay Area a source of high quality coffee from the 1960's on, died last Wednesday.

When I first came to Berkeley in the mid 1980's the really good coffee here made an immediate impression on me — you could get excellent cappuccinos, lattes, espressos of all sorts, coffee by the pound, etc. (along with good bagels or pastries) cheaply and easily in any number of small coffee shops and cafes throughout Berkeley or San Francisco; a lot of that coffee was supplied by Peet's or small local companies inspired by Peet's. After London's acidic instant powdered swill, the coffee here was a relief; what made it a surprise, though, was that everyone had told me over and over before coming here that American coffee was just terrible (often enough, they still say that, which is odd, but never mind). But American coffee as I experienced it was just great. What I didn't really know at the time, of course, was that (as with so many things in life) I was experiencing coffee as it was in the Bay Area, not in the US as a whole: coffee Out There beyond the Irony Zone was still swill — as it was in all of Britain and the vast majority of Australia, of course. Good coffee in the Bay Area (and, later, LA) historically went hand-in-hand with the whole California Cuisine thing that also made everyday Bay Area food something to dream of back in the food wasteland that was London in the 1980's; it's no accident that the original Peet's store is only a minute's stroll away from Chez Panisse in North Berkeley.

Peet's death was quite big news in the Bay Area, but it's unlikely to have meant much anywhere else, unless you also knew that he was the source of the raw coffee beans, expertise, and inspiration for the original Starbucks founders, in which case he looms rather large in both US gourmet coffee and cultural history. As someone who can remember when Peet's was still a small local affair (like Noah's Bagels, for that matter), who's watched Starbucks elbow its way into the Bay Area and compete head-to-head with Peet's (which has itself become a small national chain), it's hard not be ambivalent: Peet and Peet's succeeded in raising the level of coffee quality and availability throughout California and then the rest of the US, either directly or through Starbucks (go on, admit it…), but the whole annoying suburban hipster coffee culture that's grown up with it all also owes a lot to its roots in Peet's and Berkeley. And while Peet's still isn't quite Starbucks (Peet's really isn't a chain of sit-down coffee shops in the same sense that Starbucks is, it's more of a coffee retail and wholesale outfit that also happens to sell coffee and pastries over the counter, and its reputation is a lot more benign), the sight of Peet's trying to match Starbucks block by block through the downtowns and neighbourhoods around here can be a little depressing. Peet himself sold Peet's to one of Starbucks's original owners some time ago (there's a tangled history here), and it's been through a series of ownership and management changes over the years, but it's still based here, and I used to pass its main roastery in Emeryville every few days (which is now apparently in Alameda, just across the Estuary).

I think what makes the average aging Berkeley hipster really cringe about all this is just how much Starbucks seems to be the logical extension of the original Peet's experience and aims, with the added "taking coffee to the world" evangelism that's succeeded beyond those hipsters' dreams. Someone had to do it, I guess.

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