Friday, August 31, 2007


Mr. Alfred Peet 1920-2007

I know I am not alone in saying that one of the reasons I can make a living in the coffee business is due to Mr. Alfred Peet. The transformation of coffee in America from a super market loss leader to a prized specialty beverage can be traced to a handful of individuals, none of whom would be any more important or influential than Mr. Peet.

There are many stories about him that are legendary, about his living through the Nazi occupation in Holland, about his being sent by his father to work on a competitor’s tea plantation in Indonesia (His preference, he once told me, was, far and away tea. He liked to say “coffee is a combat boot, tea is a ballerina slipper”), and about his arriving nearly penniless in San Francisco and managing to land a job with a Front Street coffee broker.

But when he moved to Berkeley and opened Peet’s Coffee and Tea in 1966, he began a movement which would slowly accelerate into a massive world-wide change in consumer behavior. I remember a day we visited him at his first store. It was a ninety degree Tuesday afternoon in 1978 and there was a line of customers stretching from his front door down Vine Street. This was a time when coffee consumption and awareness nationally was at its nadir; there may have been three or four “expresso” machines in the whole East Bay. He looked at the line and said “there could be one of these on every corner”. It is not an exaggeration to recognize Alfred Peet as one of the founding fathers of the specialty coffee business.

Alfred had a gruff exterior, one that was up front and openly indicated little tolerance for fools, especially when it came to his expertise in coffee and tea. When Alfred had his coffee buying hat on, he treated you like he was Chuck Berry and you were a musician showing up to audition for his band; you either knew how to play, or you hit the highway. As a rookie in the coffee business, it was a little nerve-wracking walking into his office and knowing there was a good chance you could be exposed as a pretender and sent on your way. But he was fair, and he was almost always right.

He did not give you his respect, you had to earn it. I suppose this was from his upbringing. But later when he complimented the work we did at Royal, it was so gratifying because it was real and resulted from dues having been paid.

As I got to know Alfred a little better, I came to know what an interesting man he was and that he had a wide variety of interest outside of coffee; riding his bike every week through the Napa Valley, taking off on yak caravans in Mongolia, and traveling to other far flung exotic locales around the world.

I learned from Alfred what quality was. I learned what a coffee professional was. I know that some of what made Alfred Peet the consummate coffee man has rubbed off on us and contributes to the way we are at Royal. Some of the younger folks here never had the opportunity to go up against Alfred, but I wish they had; it would make them even better.


Alfred, it’s the week before Labor Day and the Indonesian crop, in which you are expert, is just getting underway, the pre-shipment samples are on the table…
We are going to miss your visits to our cupping room, even if you still did make me a bit nervous. I wish you were here to tell it like it is.

Goodbye and happy trails Mr. Peet.
R. Fulmer

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