Seattle’s Best Coffee founder: Jim Stewart

Talking With Jim Stewart, Pioneer of Direct Trade and Specialty Coffee

Jim-Stewart-picks-coffeeJim Stewart – founder of the iconic company now known as Seattle’s Best Coffee – has been called a titan, a pioneer, a legend, even the Godfather of the Northwest’s coffee boom.

When Jim opened up his first shop, the Wet Whisker, right here on Whidbey Island in 1969, coffee was still the humble morning beverage served up at roadside diners. Few imagined that it would become the ubiquitous specialty drink it is today – but Jim did. He knew early on that select coffees, purchased directly from farmers around the world, could be mindfully roasted to create a taste that moved people.

Fortunately for us, Jim is a good friend of Mukilteo Coffee Roasters, and he has been the catalyst for many of our own partnerships with Central American coffee growers. We spoke with him recently about the coffee farm he runs with his wife in Santa Elena, Costa Rica; the importance of giving back to the communities in which our coffees are grown, and what makes the “perfect cup” of coffee.

You’re widely acknowledged as the pioneer of direct trade coffee. But how did you get started down that path? How did your lifelong relationship with coffee begin?

My impressions of great coffee were formed in 1977 when I was young and traveled to Central and South America, met the people, and saw the places where coffee is grown.

I visited Guatemala just after a major volcanic eruption. There were 18 inches of ash between the coffee trees, having the effect of powder snow on the slopes of the farm. When I tasted those beautiful Antigua, Atitlan, Acatenango, bourbon, typica coffees, I could taste the spicy volcanic ash in the cup. Wow!

In Costa Rica, the same bourbon / typica trees gave rise to the most delicious, smoky, sweet, sharp coffee flavors. Then, in Colombia, where papayas were the size of watermelons, with flowers every where, ripe mangoes and all the luscious vegetation, smooth, creamy flavors came out in the coffees.

“I began by searching out some of those special coffees hidden away on small farms for SBC, and I still do the same thing today when I seek new sources for Mukilteo Coffee. What makes my favorite coffee is finding one of those farms, tasting those unique flavor profiles, and savoring those old memories in the cup.” – Jim

What have been some of the biggest rewards you’ve experienced in your work to build and strengthen the practice of purchasing coffees directly from farmers? 

A huge surprise was a visit to Santa Elena by 56 folks from the North American Merchandising Association (NAMA), made up of vending and office coffee people. They move 33% of all coffee consumed in the US. On that first trip, they donated $500 for children’s supplies and organized a medical mission to Santa Elena.

This was the second year for that mission, and during the two medical missions they have treated over 600 local people with various ailments and prevented the death of at least two. Coming to the farm in person really makes an impact and the ways those visitors have ended up giving back has been a great reward.

Mukilteo Coffee Roasters has been working with their partners, the farmers, and community in Santa Elena to build a community park for children and families of the coffee growers. With the expansion of the practice of direct trade between farmers and roasters, is that kind of giving back becoming more common?

Well, yes, if you go back to 1977 when I first came to visit Santa Elena. Stewart Brothers was the first–and for many years the only–roaster to provide social, environmental, and disaster support in Santa Elena. Mukilteo Coffee is now the third to actually follow through and fund any project. This remains very unusual at the roaster level. The various certifications supposedly improve these things and for a roaster who cannot visit the farms personally, obtaining these certifications can at least provide some assurance that something good is being done in the places where the coffee comes from.

What, for you, makes the “perfect cup” of coffee?

I had two very memorable cups of coffee in my life. The first was in the basement of the Sig Tau fraternity house at the University of Wisconsin during summer school, very early in the morning, just before going trout fishing. It was not anything special, probably Folgers or Hill’s Brothers, but it tasted so good, rich, sweet, and nutty. The second, many years later, was while I was working at the Coffee Bean in Brentwood Village, west Los Angeles. It was a Bourbon Santos from Brazil, brewed in a melitta filter by a southern California blonde! You see, it’s not just the coffee, it’s the atmosphere, even a special mug, a special time, or place, or person, that makes the “perfect cup.”

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