Erna Knutsen

By the time I met Erna Knutsen, she was already Erna Knutsen, and had been for a long time. She’s just died, I am told, though I’m not sure I believe it. I expect to hear her laughter wherever two or more coffee people are gathered together, that great and elegant guffaw that told you everything was so silly and sacred at the same damn time.

The first time I heard that laugh I was in Philadelphia in the fall of 1998. She greeted me the same way she greeted you if you ever met her, as if you were the single most important person in the world at that moment. I was as new to coffee as new could possibly be and yet she seemed to adore me in a way that was both seductive and sedative. It was hard to worry around Erna. And if you think “seductive” is not an appropriate term to use in reference to a person who was then in her mid 70’s, you never met Erna Knutsen.

The next time I saw Erna was in the spring of 1999 and not only did she remember me and everything we had talked about the last time we met, she knew what I had been doing in the meantime. It was astounding to me because any casual meeting with Erna was accompanied by an unending series of interruptions from people who just wanted to “say hello,” and she seemed to remember personal tidbits about many of those people too.

So, for me, seeing Erna was like continuing a conversation that had been placed on hold for months or even years. And always, there was the joy. The joy of Erna Knutson was infectious and undeniably genuine. By this I mean that the joy of Erna could cause you to feel shame because you were faking it some of the time.

I’m not sure of the dates after these initial encounters, but I spent many a moment with Erna through 2008, and then once or twice after that. But right now, I want to remember one time in particular.

All of the SCAA committee volunteers had gathered in Long Beach for some planning meetings on the Queen Mary. I was in charge of the meetings and, to be honest, it wasn’t my best showing. In any case, we had booked an Indian restaurant, the entire place, for a post planning dinner. I sat next to Erna and she regaled me with stories, all told with her great sense of humor. Because I have more than a passing interest in stories and coffee history, I only had eyes for Erna the entire night. At some point I realized that some of our volunteer committee members had taken over the bar and were making drinks, willy nilly, and destroying my party budget. I started to stand up, intending to tell them to calm down and back away from the alcohol, when I felt a hand on my arm. It was Erna.

“Let them play,” she said. “They work hard and they are volunteers and it is not that much money.”

She was right, of course. I did go over my budget, but not by much more than it cost just a few volunteers to travel to the meetings.  Having started importing coffee when there were almost no women trading coffee, Erna had perspective. I mean, when male coffee traders refused to allow her in the cupping room, but would bring coffee to her desk for her to cup, I imagine that creates perspective. She was influential before she was allowed to cup coffee with men. When they finally allowed her to cup coffee with the boys, their ridicule was relentless.

B.C. Ireland was an old-line coffee company in San Francisco. Founded in 1885, they were originally importers (or, to be precise, “Importers’ Brokers”) of “Spices, Seeds, Tapiocas, Peanuts, Herbs, Rice and All Oriental Merchandise.” By the time Erna arrived as a secretary in the 1960’s, they were coffee importers and set in their ways. Erna took an interest in the coffee and started selling small lots before she learned to cup coffee. She liked the roasters (“mostly young people”) who were buying this “special” coffee. They were interested in quality attributes beyond clean cup and willing to take risks and pay more. Erna had found her tribe. She was a specialty coffee importer.

Much has been made (even cafes named), and rightly so, about Erna using the phrase “specialty coffee” in a 1974 interview with Tea & Coffee Trade Journal. This is often cited as the first use of the phrase “specialty coffee” in print, and it seems it was. When “her” roasters gathered a few years later to talk about starting a specialty coffee association, Erna was there, sitting on the floor, passing the wine. I’ve been told it was Erna’s persistence and insistence that kept the whole thing from falling apart amongst all the male egos in the room during that first meeting. Having met Erna and having met several of the men who were in that room, I believe it.

In 1985 Erna started Knutsen Coffee, 100 years after the founding of B.C. Ireland. I like to think that was intentional.