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George Howell Is Back In The Coffee Game07:51
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George Howell was the first to introduce specialty coffee to this part of New England. (Courtesy Rebecca Fitzgerald/George Howell Coffee)
George Howell was the first to introduce specialty coffee to this part of New England. (Courtesy Rebecca Fitzgerald/George Howell Coffee)

I started my day on Friday in a brand new coffee house not far from the WBUR studios.

We take this for granted now, but remember when we lived in a world where a decent cup of coffee was pretty much unavailable? We're talking pre-Starbucks. And it wasn't that long ago when you couldn't really find a decent coffee bean or espresso anywhere around Boston.

Coffee connoisseur George Howell remembers Boston before coffee culture hit.

"It was a complete wasteland," he says.

Howell, the owner of the new  George Howell Coffee shop in Newtonville, was the first to introduce specialty coffee — real coffee — to this part of the world. Back in 1975 he opened the Coffee Connection in Harvard Square — remember that? It expanded to a chain of 24 stores around the northeast, until he sold out to a then new and growing company called Starbucks.

"It was a very emotional decision," he remembers.  "The headlines were David versus Goliath."

Howell worked for Starbucks for a time, but then went his own way — searching the world for the best coffee — promoting single growers — and eventually establishing his own roastery in Acton. Now, he's back in the retail game — still talking about coffee the way a French vintner talks about a fine Chateau Neuf de Pape. And recalling those early days when Boston was a coffee desert.

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This segment aired on March 2, 2012.

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