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The literary importer of Le Havre.

The literary importer of Le Havre

Philippe Jobin is a man in search of the beginnings, the best, the soul of coffee. His pre-occupation with Arabica has taken him to virtually every nation where the trees are grown: to Ethiopia, Sudan and Yemen for the headwaters of coffee; throughout Latin America for a firsthand knowledge of that New World empire of Arabica; and more recently into the Far East. His most recent explorative trip, this spring, has been to New Guinea.

The 40 years of his career mark a voyage into coffee, a continuing exploration that has become a personal commitment. Yes, the effort has benefitted his Le Havre coffee importing company - a traditional, family firm, Maison Jobin - but it has also led to a clear articulation of certain opinions, even a coffee creed of sorts, that has come from the long study and personal experiences.

First and foremost, Jobin is a businessman, but he is, too, among those few who breathe a touch of idealism into the cold steel of trade. In the simplest terms, Jobin proposes a mentality of sharing: sharing the knowledge and enthusiasm he has acquired, through a variety of means - books, newsletters, speeches, etc.; sharing pleasure in good coffee with as many consumers as possible; sharing the riches of coffee even with those who toil to produce it.

Jobin might explain this interpretation with a shrug, and by saying that coffee is both his business and hobby. Sailing is as well, but one that hardly compares with coffee - although it has been serviceable, as for example when Jobin sailed his boat to South Yemen on a coffee exploration and at a time when air travel to that country was restricted.

But preoccupation with coffee is a tradition in Le Havre, and for the Jobin family. The Jobin name ranks among the port's handful of old coffee families. Philippe's brother, Yves, joins him in the business, and their father and grandfathers (paternal and maternal) were importers too. Maurice Jobin, their father, at the age of 93, is the dean of French coffee importers and continues to come to the office! Philippe has noted that the word coffee may well derive from the Turkish word "kaveh," from the Arabic "kawah" meaning strength - an interpretation supported in this reference by example.

For two years, Maison Jobin (along with its SAAA subsidiary) has been fully merged into the operations of another old Le Havre coffee family, Raoul-Duval. Philippe continues as managing director, and the company operates much as it has since its founding in 1871. Along with headquarters in Le Havre, the company maintains an office in Marseille.

Philippe is well known in France for his newsletter, through which he periodically communicates with domestic clients. The device is an unusual form of direct marketing in that it is distinctly personal as to viewpoint and subject matter - the themes range from green and roasted market analyses to philosophical/historical pronouncements on coffee, and even an occasional sermon on coffee quality and industry tendencies. The Jobin pen can be (is) sharp. Sometimes the writing has cut too close on the chins of the powerful. The opinions are not always popular.

Jobin also writes for Le Cafe, the monthly report of France's Federation Nationale du Commerce des Cafes Verts. Current editions have featured chapters following his "In Search of Moka Lost" account of a visit last year to North Yemen.

Maison Jobin and SAAAA are also known in France for the range of and style of their commercial offerings, including teas and an intriguing array of accessories for both tea and coffee. But at the heart of the business are most certainly the green coffees - of all viable origins, from the rare to the everyday.

While Philippe is specialized himself in Arabicas, Maison Jobin handles about one-third of its traffic in robusta, hardly surprising in a nation famed for its historic ties to robusta producing countries. The clients are found throughout France, large and small alike, although the firm clearly offers unusual services to small and specialty coffee roasters.

In addition to green coffees, Maison Jobin offers soluble coffee imported from Brazil and, via SAAAA, Darjeeling teas uniquely from the Tea Board of India - in tea bags or for presentation in fine wooden boxes (the boxes can also be used for specialty coffees). The company is a source for an entire collection of Italian tins, various sizes and styles, for tea and coffee. The globalism continues with chocolates from Belgium, paper coffee filters from Holland, and a particularly unique line of large faience coffee brewers for display from Germany.

Also from Germany, the company offers a sporty looking lab-size roasting machine, for trade, industry and even the home. The unit can roast 100gm portions, by electrically heated air and features a roast control and automatic stop function.

In France and around the world, Jobin is known for books along with green coffee and lab roasters. During the past decade, Maison Jobin has become the source for books on coffee in French, offered for the most part by the SAAAA subsidiary.

The company now offers 11 titles, covering the spectrum of coffee interests by a variety of writers. Among these, Jobin himself penned the preface to the French version of Mariarosa Schiaffino's L'Heure du Cafe and authored the book Le Cafe with Bernard Van Leckwyck (a good coffee table companion, and a charming one at that).

The list is capped by Jobin's own opus, a book that has placed his name on books in coffee offices in more than 50 nations - The Coffees Produced Throughout the World (Les Cafes Produits dans le Monde). This amply illustrated, English-French language guide to coffee, origin by origin, is an inimitable source for reference information. The book stands alone not only for the extent and degree of information it provides but also as an expression of Jobin's own coffee philosophy. More than 5,000 copies of the book have been sold since publication in 1982.

Undoubtedly the perfect companion to this work, if somewhat more whimsical, is Philippe's own addition to coffee wall art - meaning the electronic world map that can give the aficionado a real glow-in-the-dark tour of all 80 coffee producing nations. This is now available in three versions, at ascending levels of sophistication and price (it ain't cheap!), the most elaborate being Jobin's personalized edition formatted with a panel of switches to provide colorful illuminations of the 80 producing nations, 35 Arabica exporters, the 28 washed and 11 natural Arabica origins, the 27 robusta producers, 27 dry and six wet producers. This Cadillac version can even light up Jobin's own selection of preferred origins.

The pleasures of electronics aside, Jobin has a message on quality to spread and he is not shy of the job. This spring he has already addressed the Specialty Coffee Association of America meeting in San Francisco and the Spanish Coffee Congress in Valencia. What are his themes - the potential loss in quality due to low prices to producers, the threat to quality posed by the imposition of new "wonder" varieties, and the dubious benefits derived from the latest techniques in sorting and drying procedures now being adopted in some producing countries.

But what are the origins that warm his heart? Through time his list of most-favored commercial coffees necessarily changes; for now, however, it includes: Brazil Sol de Minas, Type 2 NY, Screen 17-19, fancy, fine cup; Colombia Excelso and Supremo; Venezuela "Tachira;" Guatemala SHB; Costa Rica SHB; Mexico Altura and Maragogype; Haiti 5X and 3X, natural; the washed coffees of Ethiopia; the Kenya AA; India Plantation A; the better qualities of New Guinea production.

More To Come

And next from Monsieur Jobin?. . .A coffee dictionary, a work that becomes mythic as the years go by and the notebooks of citations begin to take over Philippe's bookcase. When completed and published, this will be Dicoffee, coffee A-Z, most assuredly, and with a dash of Gaulic conviviality.
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Title Annotation:Maison Jobin imports coffee and publishes books on the subject
Author:Bell, Jonathan
Publication:Tea & Coffee Trade Journal
Article Type:Bibliography
Date:Jun 1, 1990
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