Thursday, January 17, 2019

FN Review of The Coffee Visionary: The Life & Legacy of Alfred Peet



On my desk as I write this is a mug of Peet’s Costa Rican coffee, ground in my kitchen, brewed strong, and drunk black. The beans arrive via UPS within days of roasting. Peet’s has been my house coffee since I was a Cal Berkeley undergrad. I remember seeing Alfred Peet wearing his shop coat behind the counter at the original store on Vine and Walnut. So, in the interests of full disclosure: yes, I’m a proud Peetnik. Peetniks are all about the coffee: the beans, the roast, the brewing. Like Alfred Peet himself, they disdain what they regard as the coffee-flavored milk drinks served by Starbucks.

Despite my lifelong commitment to the brand, it turns out there was a lot I didn’t know about Alfred Peet. That’s been remedied by Jasper Houtman’s excellent new biography, which covers Peet’s personal life as well as the history of the company. Houtman bases his account on published and unpublished interviews with Peet, as well as first-hand interviews with many people who knew the man personally.

Born in Holland in 1920, Peet was raised by a stiff, demanding father with whom he never established a warm relationship. Years later, when he traveled and lived around the world, he wrote only to his mother, never to his father. This alienation wasn’t entirely his father’s fault. Young Alfred was a rebellious child: he didn’t do well at school because he felt pressured to perform, and he chafed at the tight confines of bourgeois Dutch culture.

Peet’s father and various in-laws were in the coffee business in Holland. Alfred had a natural flair for tasting coffee and tea, but rather than join his father’s company, he left Holland as soon as he could. After WWII went to London to work in tea for the Lipton company. Soon he left for the Dutch East Indies (today’s Indonesia), and after that for New Zealand. Seeking a still bigger horizon, he came to the United States in 1955, landing in San Francisco. A series of short-term jobs—including door-to-door salesman—followed, which the shy Peet found excruciating. But he was determined to make his way.

At the time, most coffee came pre-ground in cans from the grocery store. But having discovered the Italian espresso culture of North Beach, Peet realized there was an opportunity in America for better coffee. He was determined to make it happen. Unlike the Bay Area innovators of recent years, Peet was no young upstart. He didn’t open his first store until 1966, when he was forty-six years old. His timing and choice of location couldn’t have been better: the store on the corner of Vine and Walnut became a founding feature of Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto. The area’s reputation was cemented when Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse around the block in 1971.

From the beginning, Peet’s mission was to teach people about coffee. In doing so he didn’t pull any punches. He railed against customers who brewed his coffee in percolators. He fired employees who didn’t follow his strict procedures. And yet he freely shared his knowledge with people who wanted to learn about coffee. He trained many coffee roasters who went on to build their own businesses (such as Starbucks). Despite his Dutch directness—which Americans often read as rudeness—and his inflexibility about the correct ways to do coffee, many of those he trained came to fondly regard him as a mentor.

Like most entrepreneurs, Peet assumed total control of all details of the operation. Part of this was intellectual—the man was a perfectionist who insisted on doing it the best way, or not at all. Another part of it was characterological: scattered throughout Houtman’s book are examples of obsessive-compulsive behavior, as well as a compromised approach to interpersonal relationships. These traits enabled him to create a brand known for its commitment to quality, but also limited its potential to expand. Peet was entirely comfortable with this outcome: he had a small but profitable company that met his personal standards. Later in life, he acknowledged some downsides: he had missed out on some trends and opportunities, and suffered from the stress that went with total control.

Alfred Peet’s emphasis was on practical hands-on training. He felt cupping and roasting can be learned, but not from textbooks. Remarkably, he did not consider coffee to be the ultimate sensory challenge. For him, that was tea.
“In essence, tea is a more interesting product than coffee,” Alfred said. “Tea you can truly compare to wine, there are as many teas as there are wines, with as many different flavors, colors, and bouquets. (. . .) In contrast with tea, coffee is a rather coarse product; the subtle differences that you see in tea, you can’t find in coffee.”
Peet had little use for pompous, wine-like descriptions of coffee. He encouraged people to use simple, even personal terms to describe coffee flavor. His emphasis, especially when teaching someone how to roast beans, was on direct experience, on doing rather than knowing. This could lead to some unusual, almost Zen-like, directives.
How do you determine the moment when you have to take the beans out of the roaster? “The coffee will speak to you and will let you know when she’s ready,” Alfred told his students. For outsiders this sounds mystifying, but those who wanted to learn the profession from him developed an ear for it as well.
Peet didn’t invent a technology. He didn’t build a commercial empire or create a new way of doing business. Instead, he was a sensory entrepreneur: a blender of beans and an evangelist for flavor.

Alfred Peet has become known as the father of the American coffee renaissance. The impact of his life and work are evident wherever one goes. Today, there is quality coffee and espresso in crossroad burgs and small towns throughout the country’s vast interior.

For that, Mr. Peet, we thank you.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Hard Copies & Web Metrics



Our cannabis aroma paper in PLoS ONE has now been viewed over 4,000 times and downloaded more than 600 times since February. It’s gratifying to see so many people interested in a new research theme. And yet, because web-based metrics are automated, impersonal counters, I don’t have a clue who these people are. It hasn’t always been this way.

When I was in graduate school in the pre-internet age, the super-efficient way to scan the new scientific literature was to grab a physical copy of Current Contents, the weekly publication of the Institute for Scientific Information (ISI). It was a thick little booklet, printed on thin, bright white paper. At least it was bright white when it arrived in the mail and when your lab head got to leaf through it. By the time it reached the grad students’ offices, it was tattered, marked up, and usually stained with coffee, cheesesteak drippings, and rat urine.



Current Contents listed the contents of the life sciences journals published that week, along with author names and addresses. This enabled you to request a physical reprint of the paper by mailing a letter or postcard. Better funded departments had pre-printed postcards for this purpose. Really well-funded labs signed up for ISI’s pre-printed Request-A-Print® cards—they came with a peel-off return address sticker for the reprint sender’s convenience. But you still had to fill in by hand the citation and the author’s address.



Although it beat going to the library and physically browsing recent, unbound issues of your favorite journals, this process was labor intensive. As a result, it made you think twice about the article in question: was it truly worth the effort of requesting your own personal copy? How many of us today download papers on a whim, only to have them stack up, unread, in our “worth a look” folder?

On the flip side, receiving reprint requests in the mail was a rewarding experience, especially for a graduate student or newly minted faculty member. It meant someone had found your work sufficiently interesting to fill out the postcard. And you knew who they were! A reprint request from a Big Name in the Field was acknowledgment that you had arrived.



Reprint requests also brought a sense of connectedness with scientists around the world. The mail would bring postcards with bright stamps and formal, cursive handwriting. The ones from communist block countries like East Germany, Poland, and Czechoslovakia were sad: printed on pulpy, low quality paper that oxidized in the sunlight and had a bitter smell. I always enjoyed fulfilling these requests—it meant acknowledging these scientists, keeping them connected to the free world, and encouraging freedom of inquiry.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Cannabis in the U.S. Patent Office

Given my current interest in the olfactory properties of cannabis, I monitor the relevant scientific literature and every so often scan the U.S. patent application database. There are a ton of weed-related patents being filed. Some of the inventions are for practical devices, like this one for “Apparatus and related methods for trimming dried Cannabis flowers,” filed by Cullen Raichart of San Diego, California. Mr. Raichart aims to be the Eli Whitney of cannabis. The brief abstract and an illustration are all you need to understand his machine and what it does.


Then there’s “Apparatus and methods for biosynthetic production of cannabinoids,” by Robert Winnicki, et al. This group of inventors is looking beyond the agricultural horizon and proposing to create THC and related cannabinoids in a bioreactor. Neato!

As I browsed along, I found another application that sounded promising: “Method of producing cannabidiol derived products.” When I read the abstract I did a spit-take.
Methods are provided for producing cannabidiol (CBD)-based products in accordance with cycles of the moon and a plurality of biodynamic rituals. In some embodiments, the phase of the moon may be correlated with positions of the moon among the twelve zodiac signs, and the positions used to guide in the cultivation and harvest of cannabis plants. In some embodiments, the phase of the moon and the corresponding astrological phase that the moon is moving through may be used to determine when to plant seeds, when/how to water and fertilize, when to take cuttings, and the right time to harvest mature cannabis plants to produce optimal CBD-derived products. It is contemplated that farming cannabis with consideration of moon cycles may result in healthier plants, increased yields and superior products.
Yes, you read that correctly! Inventor Christine Meeusen of Merced, California, seeks to patent a method of using lunar cycle phase and the moon’s zodiacal position to optimize timing of seed planting, watering, and harvesting of Cannabis.

If the abstract sounds nutty, the body of Ms. Meeusen’s application (which cites no other patents or prior art) is even nuttier. Here’s item 37 from the Detailed Description section:
In one embodiment, the CBD derived products are only manufactured from the new moon to the full moon. On the first day of the cycle, a biodynamic ritual may be held under the stars so as to bless a work environment, such as a table. The ritual may include appreciation with respect to a Creator God and Mother Goddess. Depending on the product, a bundle of sage may be lit, and swept over any plurality of bottles and ingredients that include a high-proof alcohol to dissolve the bud. A plurality of incantations may also be communicated. In one embodiment, the producers may utilize a bundle of sage so as to cleanse one another prior to production. In one embodiment, appropriate dosages of marijuana may be scooped into preparation jars.
Ooooookay, then. Meanwhile, the flowchart in Fig. 1 looks like a game plan drawn up by the Underpants Gnomes:


Fig. 3 achieves peak nuttiness:


So who is Ms. Meeusen? A quick google search reveals that she is also known as Sister Kate the “weed nun.” Like other members of her “order,” she dresses in full habit, coif and wimple while running a sizable marijuana grow in Merced. According to Reuters, she first took up the nun persona in 2011 as part of her involvement in Occupy Wall Street. [This is my shocked face.—Ed.]

Is this a practical joke? Unlikely, given the expense of filing a patent. Is it performance art? Maybe. In any case, pity the poor patent examiner.

The U.S. patent applications discussed here are 20180126578 (Raichart), 20180179564 (Winnicki et al.) and 20180169162 (Meeusen).

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Greener Grass Podcast: Where I Talk About the Smell of Cannabis



 A couple of weeks ago Lex Pelger, host of the Greener Grass podcast, dropped by my sensory lab in Fort Collins to tape an interview. His first questions were about my career in the science of smell and how smell works. Midway through (around the 16:45 mark) he turned to my latest research interest: creating quantitative aroma profile for cannabis strains. We discuss how this kind of sensory research can be put to use in the rapidly evolving cannabis industry. You can find the podcast here.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Round 2: Parlux Comes Out Swinging at Jay Z



Today, attorneys for plaintiffs Parlux Fragrances and Perfumania filed a blizzard of documents in their ongoing lawsuit against Jay Z. Why? Because at oral arguments on February 28, Jay Z’s side attempted to have key elements of the Parlux complaint tossed out, and Judge Ramos said no.

That opened the way for Parlux to fire the big guns today. They asked the court to compel Jay Z and his company, S. Carter Enterprises, LLC, to produce a ton of documents and to answer interrogatories, i.e., a laundry list of questions regarding the dispute. And they want things to happen quickly—they asked for a hearing on their motion to be held on June 14.

The attorneys are making liberal use of the protective order granted by Judge Ramos that allows them to redact sensitive information or file it under seal. Of the fifteen documents filed by Parlux today, six exhibits are under seal and two others are partially redacted. Still, FirstNerve can fill you in on the big picture.

Parlux claims Jay Z was contractually obligated to be available to market, develop and promote the Gold Jay Z fragrance; yet he nevertheless failed to fulfill these obligations. Therefore, Parlux is demanding relevant information as to why; in particular, they want details about  Jay Z’s schedule at the time and his obligations to other brands and business ventures. Parlux is also asking Jay Z’s side to put up or shut up regarding its counterclaim for damages owed to Jay Z; in other words, get real and tell us how you arrived at the dollar number you are demanding from Parlux.
Although Plaintiffs duly paid the royalties which ultimately inured to the benefit of Jay-Z, Defendants simply refused to uphold their end of the bargain. As Defendants’ counsel acknowledged at oral argument in open court in February 2018, Jay-Z did not show up to a single personal appearance over the entire life of the license.
The brief goes on to quote the same damning courtroom exchange that FirstNerve highlighted.

Parlux recounts how Jay Z bailed on planned November 2013 launch events at Macy’s and Sephora with only a couple of weeks notice, adding:
The November 2013 events are not the only time Parlux sought the required input and involvement from Defendants only to be rebuked and/or ignored. In fact, numerous documents produced in this case demonstrate that this was the modus operandi of the Defendants for the entirety of the contractual relationship. As early as April 30, 2013 – months before the scheduled launch of the initial fragrance – Defendant Jay-Z indicated his unwillingness to meet his contractual obligations.
According the brief, Parlux repeatedly tried to arrange meetings, only to be told by Jay Z’s team that the star was “unavailable.” The brief includes a redacted quote from an internal Jay Z email, after which the Parlux team states:
Apparently, taking the money and not doing the work is Jay-Z’s mantra.
The Parlux brief goes into great (often redacted) detail with respect to Jay Z’s repeated “non-collaborative attitude and stonewalling” which continued throughout 2013 and into 2014. The Parlux brief contains several redacted quotes from emails sent by Jay Z and Desiree Perez, the COO of S. Carter Enterprises (herself an interesting character). On what basis were these quotes kept from public view? [Foul language?—Ed.]

Included in today’s filings by Parlux are the interrogatories for Jay Z and S. Carter Enterprises (SCE) that were sent originally in May 2016. Interestingly, the questions extend to three other Jay Z enterprises: Artistic Brands Development LLC, Marcy Fragrance Trading Co. LLC, and Roc Nation Sports.

Among other things, Parlux wants to know the current disposition and/or ownership of 300,000 shares of Perfumania common stock and 800,000 Perfumania warrants that were given to Jay Z et al. as part of the perfume deal. Also, Parlux is still sore about that missing 18-carat gold dummy bottle of Gold Jay Z; thus they demand:
14. All documents concerning the location of the 18-carat gold GOLD JAY Z bottles designed by Jacob the Jeweler.
Given Jay Z’s many business deals, this demand is a doozy:
20. All documents concerning any effort that SCE or Carter undertook to promote, market and/or support any of the other brands and/or ventures that SCE or Carter own, or in which they otherwise have a financial interest.
In the February hearing, Judge Ramos expressed puzzlement as to why this case it taking so long. If the Parlux brief is to be believed, it is because Jay Z’s attorneys are deliberately dragging their feet. Expect that to continue, but also expect Judge Ramos to turn up the heat and get the case moving.