For Peet's sake

Before there was a Starbucks, there was a Peet's. And before there was a Peet's, there was . . . well, not much, really; not in the way of fine fresh-roasted premium coffee for home brewing; not in North America, at least. Serious Northwest coffee buffs have been procuring Peet's via mail order since the Bay Area roastery opened back in 1966. Now less dedicated caffeinites can sample the Peet's product both on tap and in the bag at all Larry's Market stores. It's pretty impressive stuff, even if you're in the habit of brewing from premium beans at home. Baristas dump any carafe when contents are more than half an hour from brewing. Each 12-ounce vacuum-sealed packet of Peet's prominently displays the date its contents were roasted, and retailers are instructed to pull any bags that have been on the shelf too long. When one bakery chain in the Northeast failed to cooperate with the rule, Peet's pulled its products entirely. Even a firm extremely dedicated to quality might jib at losing a million-pound- a-year contract such as that Northeastern bakery chain's, and Peet's proprietor Gerald Baldwin confesses that it wasn't easy. But he also says the company simply had no choice. "I know my customers. They demand the highest quality and can tell the difference, and if we err from their standard, they're quick to point it out." To maintain those standards and remain competitive in the ever-more-crowded premium coffee trade has required Peet's "to reinvent the whole way we roast and ship," Baldwin says. "It's not very efficient, roasting 34 different blends of coffee daily instead of letting a computer control the process, turning out a couple weeks' worth of one product and then moving on to the next. "But coffee roasting is still an artisanal process. No computer is as sensitive as a human being, and our chief roaster's been on the job for 20 years. We're now well into a third generation of fine coffee producers in America, and what we're proudest of is that despite our volume, we still make coffee as good as the best of the little guys do." What about fair trade coffee? Baldwin sympathizes with the idea for the short term but thinks it's economically unsustainable. "The best beans already fetch premium prices. The current coffee glut is due to too much planting in inferior locations. Paying farmers a premium to grow low-quality coffee for export, when they and their countries would be better off growing a different crop for local consumption, doesn't help anybody in the long run." E-mail your beverage-related thoughts to

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