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The Coffee Visionary By Jasper Houtman Book Review

Published on under the Book Review category.

The Coffee Visionary book on a white table

Peet’s Coffee, Tea and Spices was one of the inspirations behind Starbucks. I have read this from many sources. Indeed, the Starbucks we know today does not resemble the initial company. It was Howard Schultz who pioneered the idea of rapid growth. The founders of Starbucks based their vision of the business on what they had seen from Alfred Peet, the owner of Peet’s based in Berkeley, California. But I had no idea that Starbucks was only one of many businesses who benefited – directly or indirectly – from Alfred Peet and his devotion to selling high-quality coffee.

The Coffee Visionary, written by Jasper Houtman, tells the story of Alfred Peet and his company, Peet’s. Although Houtman did not interview Peet directly, he was able to collate information from a range of sources and interviews that portrayed a detailed history of Peet’s. Peet was not known for giving interviews; there are very few video recordings of him available and he was a private man.

Houtman starts at the beginning with what made Peet’s what it is today: the dark roast. Peet had a unique aptitude for roasting, derived through extensive practice, that let him produce a quality of coffee that nobody else could match. But this was not the only component in his initial success. He attributes some success to a friend who helped advise him on the location of his first Peet’s store, positioned close to the University of Berkeley and thereby offering Peet’s access to a diverse and youthful market. Peet did not just care about roasting well: every detail had to be right. He did not like how traditional coffee importers could not offer him the right quality of beans. He gave Chinese contractors specific instructions about how to construct some of the interior of the store

Peet, who was from the Netherlands, came from a family with some history in coffee. His father roasted coffee; other members of his family worked in various coffee-related businesses. Often, his father would come home and lay out coffees for his mother to try. Peet’s father relied on his wife for her thoughts on coffees when he was making buying decisions. But Peet’s father had high expectations for his son, perhaps in part due to the success of Peet’s sister, who went to college and attained two degrees. These expectations are perhaps what caused Peet to struggle in school; he was never academically brilliant and later he struggled to hold down a single job.

Peet travelled the world for some time, going to countries like New Zealand. He wanted to move to the United States but this took some time. He planned to move to Canada until he could go to the U.S. but he could not obtain a Canadian visa, perhaps because his tea and coffee skills were not as valued in Canada at the time. Indeed, Peet built up extensive experience in coffee and tea. He liked to taste tea and could distinguish subtle differences in teas. One time, while working for Lipton in London, he rejected an entire batch of tea because it tasted like oil. Lipton did not believe he could detect the very subtle oil in the coffee – derived from somewhat careless shipping – but in a blind taste test Peet yet again found the oil.

Peet was a master at tasting and practised this craft often, both himself and with others. In his later years, he would cup – taste – coffee with others, telling them what to look out for. He believed in focus: once, he got frustrated because his cupping companion was going to clean up a spill of coffee on the cupping table. He had a good knowledge of tea, and he did say that in hindsight he wanted to do more with the tea side of Peet’s – the company did sell tea. Peet used tasting to get to know people. He always sought the best-quality coffees, developing a relationship with a coffee company in Hamburg who could import beans that he thought attained his high standards.

Later in the book, Houtman turns the focus to the relationship between Starbucks and Peet’s. It turns out these two companies are more linked than I thought. Peet’s was the inspiration behind Starbucks. Peet did not see Starbucks, who did not even own a store when they first approached Peet, as a competitor: he saw them as people who could succeed if they put in the work.

Peet agreed to work with them on an internship basis where each of the three Starbucks founders would spend some time in Peet’s store, learning how to run a coffee store. Baldwin, one of the founders of Starbucks, learned how to roast coffee and how Peet prepared the coffee shop, taking this knowledge away to Starbucks. This was characteristic of Peet: he would help people who he thought were serious about coffee.

Later, Peet sold his business to Sal Bonavita. Peet wanted a “blank slate” to buy the business, someone who, unlike the Starbucks’ founders, had not spent a lot of time learning about and working with the company. This somewhat angered Baldwin who was clearly interested in buying Peet’s if it were ever up for sale. Baldwin eventually got what he wanted: he was able to acquire Peet’s when Bonavita had to sell the business due to family issues.

Baldwin spent years with the business, growing to more stores while still retaining the brand and focus on quality that Peet’s has today. Peet’s has only ever had three roastmasters: roasting has always been close to the business.

The sale of Peet’s was not what you might expect. Peet agreed to stay on as a consultant for the business for a period of five years, part of the acquisition agreement signed by Bonavita. While his advice was appreciated – Peet was well-received when he entered the main office – he sometimes got in the way. It seemed to me that sometimes he forgot he was no longer in charge. He once tried to fire an employee even though he no longer had the authority to do so. When he was a consultant, he was just that, he was not an owner with the authority to make decisions about staffing. Peet did not want coffee from the company sold in supermarkets.

I learned a lot about the character of Alfred Peet. He was not always a pleasant man; he had high standards and wanted other people to meet them no matter what. He sometimes was unkind to employees who did not meet those standards. He got angry at Bonavita when he did not boil water to his standards before a tea tasting. But many of these attributes are also what made him so renowned in coffee, respected by both professionals and consumers. A focus on quality was what was needed because he was trying to get people away from the impression that good-quality coffee comes in jars of Folgers and Hills Brothers.

Peet’s has changed a lot since it started with one store in Berkeley where hippies and other locals would stand and drink coffee. The shop was small but there was always a line, even before opening, of people who wanted a cup of Peet’s coffee. The business was profitable, making Peet a wealthy man, although it is unclear exactly how much he made. Even though Peet was wealthy, he was always frugal and avoided being pretentious. His house was reportedly quite simple.

Throughout the book, it is clear Peet had a passion for making coffee accessible. He did not believe in using extensive descriptors to explain a coffee; the fewer words you used, the better. He always enjoyed opportunities to tell consumers about the coffees he roasted and how he roasted them. He wanted people to enjoy his coffee and had strong opinions on how his coffee should be enjoyed. Entrepreneurs around the world have followed in his footsteps, and there are many parallels between Peet’s vision for coffee and the so-called third wave. Both Peet and third wave coffee professionals believe in quality; the degree of roast is different but a passion for coffee remains.

Passion may remain the greatest legacy of Peet; a passion for quality, educating customers, and challenging what coffee should be. He had standards. He did not believe in dishonesty. For all his negative traits – such as his struggle to remember his position in the company after its sale, all the way to how rude he could be if his standards were not met – he sparked an interest in coffee in the sixties at a time when coffee came mainly from jars. This book is an excellent read for anyone who wants to learn about the factors that started the so-called second-wave, the proliferation of higher-quality coffee in the U.S. I would also recommend this book if you are a passionate coffee drinker – like me – or a professional who just wants to know more about how the coffee industry got to where it is today.

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