The History of Peet’s Coffee
When Alfred Peet first opened the doors of his first coffee shop in Berkeley, CA, he quietly ignited a revolution that forever changed the expectations of American coffee drinkers.
Alfred Peet was born in the Netherlands on March 10, 1920. He cut his teeth in the coffee industry, caring for the roasting and grinding machinery at the small coffee company his father owned, B. Koorn & Company.
Working in his father’s company blossomed into a full passion for the coffee and tea trade. Mr. Peet opted to forego college, moving to London in the 1930s to pursue his passion by apprenticing at Twinings. He went on to work as a tea taster in Indonesia. It was there he fell in love with the syrupy richness of dark-roasted Indonesian coffee and aspired to introduce such exceptional qualities to the coffee-drinking public.
In 1955, Mr. Peet moved to San Francisco to work for a coffee importer. There, he was dismayed to discover that Americans were drinking inferior coffee. This is what inspired him to bring a new perspective on coffee to the United States.
“I came to the richest country in the world, so why are they drinking the lousiest coffee?”
A new coffee era begins
On April 1, 1966, Mr. Peet opened his own coffee shop in Berkeley at the corner of Vine and Walnut streets, not far from the University of California campus.
To Mr. Peet, it was crucial to have the shortest distance possible between the roaster and the customer, underscoring the importance of freshness to flavor. He was committed to only use high-quality beans and a sensory roasting technique calibrated to achieve a dark, sweet, even roast. In doing so, he single-handedly helped the American consumer understand and appreciate freshly roasted, deeply satisfying craft coffee.
In 1969, Mr. Peet’s good friend and retired army sergeant Key Dickason suggested an idea for a blend. Together they sampled countless combinations before arriving at what is now Peet’s all-time bestseller. Alfred Peet decided that naming it after his friend wasn't enough—Dickason's rich, complex blend deserved a promotion from sergeant to Major, and so Peet’s famous Major Dickason’s Blend was born.
The Early Years
In 1971, three young entrepreneurs approached Mr. Peet to learn the finer points of the coffee business, and for two years he provided them with training as well as the roasted coffee beans for their new venture, a company called Starbucks. Perhaps you’ve heard of it.
That same year, Peet’s opened its second store in another college town, Menlo Park. To commemorate this, Mr. Peet introduced his special 101 Blend in honor of the highway that joins the two locations. Today, Peet’s has several hundred coffeebars, including licensed locations on many more campuses.
The business saw further expansion with the acquisition of premium tea manufacturer Mighty Leaf Tea in 2014. The following year, Peet’s added Stumptown and Intelligentsia, both esteemed craft coffee producers founded by former Peet’s employees, to the family.
The Legacy Continues
In 1973, Peet’s stopped supplying Starbucks with beans, urging the company to start its own roasting operations. Mr. Peet trained Jim Reynolds into the role of Roastmaster for Starbucks, and he wholly absorbed his mentor’s skills and philosophies. In 1979, Mr. Peet sold his company, which was several years later re-sold to Starbucks founder Jerry Baldwin, who wanted to uphold the same exacting standards. To that end, he brought Reynolds in to become Peet’s second Roastmaster in 1984. Mr. Peet would watch Reynolds at the roaster, saying, “for him, the coffee lives.”
Two decades later, Reynolds recognized it was time to bring new blood into the role. They had already identified Doug Welsh, who worked in the original Vine Street coffeebar, as a rising star. Sip by sip, batch by batch, he rose to become Vice President of Coffee, and ultimately took over as Peet’s third Roastmaster in 2006, a role he continues to hold today. Jim Reynolds still contributes as Roastmaster Emeritus, and Jerry Baldwin as a Board Director.
Alfred Peet passed away in 2007 in Ashland, Oregon, where he had retired. But his influence on the industry and on how Americans drink coffee today cannot be overstated.
Peet’s celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2016 by introducing a blend inspired by Mr. Peet, who is considered the “Big Bang” of modern craft coffee. This signature blend expanded the horizon of what coffee can be, a perfect coffee to honor the man who still inspires us every day.