When Alfred Peet opened his shop in Berkeley in April, 1966 he started a coffee revolution. Nobody had ever seen top-quality coffee like this roasted in this unique style in America. The corner of Walnut and Vine quickly became a gathering place for UC Berkeley grads, undergrads, and faculty as well as local intellectuals, radicals, writers, musicians, artisans and any number of the colorful people who still make up Berkeley today.
Mr. Peet was born in Alkmaar, Holland on March 10, 1920 and died in Ashland, Oregon on August 29, 2007. His father had a small coffee roastery in Alkmaar prior to World War II, and Alfred helped his father by cleaning machinery and doing other odd jobs as a boy. When Germany invaded the Netherlands he was pressed into working for the Third Reich in Frankfurt and witnessed first hand the intensive Allied bombings there in early 1944. When the war ended, Alfred joined Lipton’s Tea in London as an apprentice and afterwards went out to the still-Dutch colony of Indonesia to work in the tea business there. He immigrated to San Francisco in 1955 and eventually found a job in the coffee importing business of E. A. Johnson & Co. But all the coffee coming into San Francisco was relatively low quality Brazils and “Central Standard” Salvadors for the large local roasting companies Folgers, MJB, and Hills Brothers. This was frustrating to Mr. Peet because he remembered the great high altitude coffees from Costa Rica, Guatemala, and East Africa that his father used to buy. But there were no customers for them here, so he decided to do something about it.
He scoured the West Coast from Vancouver to Palo Alto looking for a suitable location for a high-quality coffee roastery before a friend told him that she knew the right place for him, right across the Bay in Berkeley. He installed a small roaster in the shop’s back room, and the revolution began.
As Peet’s in Berkeley flourished, Mr. Peet opened additional stores in Menlo Park (1971), on Piedmont Avenue in Oakland (1978), and another in Berkeley across from the Claremont Hotel (1980). By the time he retired in 1983, Peet’s had a cult following from coast to coast, and many of his devoted fans continue to insist on Peet’s.
In his own words, when asked to recount his life’s story, Alfred Peet responded simply, “The coffee tells my story.”
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