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George Howell Is Back In The Coffee Game

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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Hosts Meghna Chakrabarti and Anthony Brooks introduce us to newsmakers, big thinkers and artists and bring us stories of relevance to Bostonians here and around the region. Live every weekday at 3.

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