Peet’s Coffee not only captivated the German conglomerate Joh. A. Benkiser to the tune of nearly $1 billion; it has a strange power over me, too.
News dropped this week that the famous Northern California coffee roaster will soon join a Benkiser luxury portfolio that includes Jimmy Choo shoes and Coty perfume. Analysts think that Peet’s gives Benkiser a powerful brand to wield against Starbucks on the East Coast (full article available to subscribers only), maybe even in Europe (Peet’s 200 coffee shops are mostly on the West Coast, though it sells packaged coffee at 10,000 grocery-store locations across the country).
Here in San Francisco, Peet’s feels the scorn of Third Wave insiders, the coffee drinkers who hang out on laptops at Four Barrel and Ritual. Peet’s was born in Berkeley, about a block from Chez Panisse, and at about the same time (1966). In 1971, the guys who started Starbucks in Seattle bought beans from Peet’s—owner Alfred Peet was an inspiration, a pivotal figure in American coffee. He focused on blends like Major Dickason’s, roasted so dark it yielded a signature tarry quality you either tended to equate with fine coffee, or you hated for destroying everything nuanced about decent beans.
Me, I loved Peet’s, all through my 20s and 30s. I’d gone to college in Berkeley, and Peet’s had a brooding Euro thing going on. The coffee’s blackness was deep, scary—like surrendering myself to Schoenberg or drugs. Later, when I thought I’d like to be a food writer, I lied to James Freeman, founder of Blue Bottle Coffee, to get an interview with him. Back then Freeman was just a geeky guy roasting coffee in a closet-size space in North Oakland (now he’s planning his third shop in New York); I told him I was writing a story on coffee for the San Francisco Chronicle, which was not true, but whatever.
Freeman’s message—that dark roasting burns the life out of coffee beans—brought me around, eventually (those first cups of lighter roast tasted weak and insubstantial, till my palate adjusted). My mom would still give me Peet’s gift cards for Christmas, but I never had the heart to tell her I’d moved on, even if I still drank the odd cup of Peet’s out of convenience, say at 6 a.m. on my way back home from the gym, still in funky workout T-shirt, sweaty. But in my official life, I was all Blue Bottle: Total up all the time I spent at the kiosk in the alley near the office over the two years I had my last job, waiting for my pour-overs to finish dripping, and it would probably add up to a couple of weeks.
These days I drink Peet’s nearly every morning of my life, on my way in from the train station to my CHOW cube. I could go to the Blue Bottle kiosk a short walk down the alley, but it takes too long, there’s too much chaos—I’m never sure where to stand, or whose drip is up next—and the baristas are nice enough, but definitely not friendly.
I still pretty much dislike the coffee at Peet’s—the roast is way too dark—but that’s OK: It’s my coffee, sort of like coming to terms with a family that makes you dread Thanksgiving, though you still show up. The kids who work the counter—the boy with the pompadour and Ned Flanders mustache, the dude who says “Have an amazing day” like he wants me to—they’re part of my daily coffee ritual, for a cup that's no longer challenging or even totally desirable, but is mine. What the hell: Say that connection's worth a billion dollars.