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The man who discovered Central America.

Some folks think it was Columbus or Balboa or comedian Billy Crystal as Fernando who first discovered Central America. Unfortunately, they are all wrong. It is a man named Clarence E. Bickford who should be remembered by every specialty coffee person. It was Bickford who discovered that the Centrals are "Mah-velous."

Clarence began his coffee journey as a lad in the employ of Rodolfo Hochhofler, the pioneer green coffee man of 1850's San Francisco. With maturity, years of apprenticeship, and the passing of Mr. Hochhofler, Bickford succeeded. In the trade style of the day, the house became C.E. Bickford & Co.

The West Coast trade of the 19th Century classified the quality coffees as "Mochas" (Brazil and Arabian origin) and "Javas", which meant literally those coffees grown in the Dutch East Indies, but in practice was virtually everything that could be made to pass for an East Indian coffee.

Coffees were valued by bean size, uniformity, and color. Brazil Rios were desirable in shades of "light," "dark," or "green." The "old-brown" of aged Javas brought the greatest premium in the U.S. So attractive was this color to roasters that a snappy trade was extant in dying or otherwise "aging" the beans to upgrade their marketability.

To give you an insight to the shenanigans that went on, Rios were adulterated with chromate of lead so they would pass for Javas. Venezuela "La guayras" were polished or "soapstoned," thereby converting them into Rios. Any bean that would accept a stain, or sustain a good "sweating" became a Java, including Jamaicans, Brazil Santos, Venezuela Maracaibos, and Savanilla (Colombia). Of course within the "Java" grades, "Timours" became "Preangers," and "Padangs" became "Ankolas." Don't even ask what was done to create "Arabian Mochas."

Bickford had traveled extensively during his years of apprenticeship with Hochhofler. He had been introduced to the Central American origin coffees, and had a healthy respect for them. What he did not have was a market for them.

Bickford's contribution to the coffee world is that he seems to have been the first to notice that differences in the taste of coffee can not be determined by the color and size of the bean alone. In other words, "you can't tell a bean by its cover."

Having discovered the cup merit of high grown Pacific Slope Central American coffees, Bickford set about reinventing the coffee trade to suit his vision of it. He created the blind cup test to prove the merit of the Centrals against those beans which hitherto had brought premiums in the market. And he made it stick. Once roasters began to examine offerings for their cupping merit, values were revolutionized. Blending, for the first time was put on a taste basis. Within a dozen years, importers and brokers throughout the land were advertising as did R.C. Wilhelm & Co. of New York in a 1905 edition of The Spice Mill "Cup Selections-Only."

The great roasters as well as the humble beat a path to Bickford's door. "No other factor contributed more to the growth of San Francisco as a coffee center," wrote William Ukers in 1922. J.A. Folger's premium "Golden Gate" brand soon was a blend of Central American beans. It was only a blink of a copywriters' eye before Folger began extolling the taste virtues of these superior tasting mountain-grown beans which went unrevealed by their appearance alone.

For more than a quarter century, Bickford so possessed the confidence of the San Francisco trade that he had alone become, by common consent, the arbiter and adjuster of all questions arising between importers and dealers. His passing in 1908 was a severe blow to the trade.

By 1915, the Bickford coffee brokerage enterprise sported a New Orleans office. A New York branch was opened the following year. E.H. O'Brien was president, and L.A. Wetzelberger, vice president, during the high watermark of the firm in the 1920's. The firm's mark, CEB&CO in a circle, was well-known in the trade throughout the first third of the 20th Century. From 1912 to 1918, the company's yearly imports increased from 222,542 bags to over 2.8 million.

The 1930's brought hard times followed by coffee rationing during World War 11. The marketplace, and the coffees that emerged in the post war generation were quite different than the coffee landscape in which Bickford originally founded his office. The cup test was still with us. The values sought by U.S. roasters were all askew. The fortunes of the Bickford company waned.

Frederick W. Schoenhut came to C.E. Bickford & Co. in the mid-1950's working for jo Morris. On Morris' passing, Schoenhut took over the operation of the business with Paul Murphy, in the firm's sole remaining office on Front Street in the old green coffee district of lower Manhattan. Shortly thereafter, Murphy went back into the teaching profession from which coffee had briefly claimed him.

Schoenhut continued the firm through the 1980's. He died in 1991 and was recently remembered by his friends in the New York City green coffee industry for his contribution to the trade.

In 1991, C.E. Bickford moved its offices to Great Neck, New York, from Manhattan where the firm had a home for 75 years. Here, Fred Schoenhut continues to conduct a green coffee business as broker/ agent for all growths of coffee including specialties, decaffeinated types, and coffees for the larger commercial users and traders as well.

Fred Schoenhut follows his father at C.E. Bickford. A new family venture of James Schoenhut, and Hope (Schoenhut) McLaughlin, is Bickford's Coffee House, at 364 Plandome Road, Manhasset, New York. This venue, just a short half-block from the Long Island Railroad station in one of the East's most affluent suburbs, is the town's first specialty coffee venture.

A 25-pound batch Probat roaster, in hunter green with brass ft%, is the heart of this new retail enterprise. Ditting bean grinders, Cecilware coffee brewers, and Rancilio espresso equipment round out the roster of key equipment. Fifteen specialty beans are being represented in the handsomely appointed 750 sq. ft. shop. Dozens of coffee based beverages, breakfast pastries, light lunches, and afternoon and evening fare are on the menu which also includes weekend entertainment.

Bickford could be proud of today's specialty trade. He would have seen in it as a reflection and a justification of his own values. He would have additionally taken pride in the perpetuation of his good name through the efforts of the Schoenhut family.

We in turn, can take heart and strength from Bickford's contribution. He taught the trade to use more than just our eyes when buying beans, and by his example we might learn something of honor, and fairness, and seal for true values even beyond the value of our beans.
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Title Annotation:Clarence E. Bickford promoted Central American coffee
Author:Schoenholt, Donald N.
Publication:Tea & Coffee Trade Journal
Date:Nov 1, 1993
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