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We are All Witnesses to One Woman's Persistence - Erna Knutsen

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Coffee Voyagers | Erna Knutsen       Editor | Kelvin & Amir Alamdari


"A Lifetime of Devotion is Enough"

 

What are achievements, successes, and fame? Have you ever thought about these things?

 

I think everyone has had those ideas, like, “I want to be very famous, I want to be successful, I want to be this or that… But all of these definitions lead back to one main idea, MONEY… a lot of money. I felt this deep down in my heart and mind after I came to China. 

 

The definition of success varies from person to person, but recently my personal view is that those who are truly successful are those who focus on what they should be doing, and concentrate on one thing.

 

The pressures of life, and all the troubles and doubts and distracting thoughts in our mind, rip us away like the waves of a storm, causing us to lose hope, despair. 

 

Sometimes, the admonitions of the people around us cause us to lose sight of our goals, or make it seem as though our goals are so far and unattainable, and can weaker our willpower, or lead us to give up our plans. 

 

In this age of information, maybe many of us have developed some form of attention deficit disorder, and look for the next shiny new toy, without focusing on the long-term goals, our true callings.

 

Life isn’t about focusing on one single mission or goal!  It’s about putting all your abilities, all your love, all your skills and experiences completely into your passions.  Pouring your entire being into this passion, and focusing all your studies, your strength, introspection and analysis, and culminating into constant growth and development.

 

Only through completely and totally putting your entire heart and soul into something can you reach and achieve your desired goals and results. Success isn’t so hard, nor is it so far. Every small step towards your goal is a tiny victory, and slowly accumulating these tiny victories, believing in yourself, will make your goal closer and more clear.

 

This week’s coffee voyager is also known as “the matriarch of specialty coffee”—Erna Knutsen.

 

Over the past few days, all of us in the coffee business have seen countless stories about her in our news feeds—she is no stranger to any of us. There’s no need for me to repeat too much of what has already been said, but I want to take a moment to give her a brief introduction, and provide some of my own thoughts about the Queen of Specialty Coffee.

 

Erna Knutsen (1921 - 2018)

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Erna Knutsen was born on August 31st, 1921, in a small Norwegian village above the Arctic Circle.  Her father Edwin emigrated from Norway to New York alone, working in the shipyards and saving his money for two years until he could bring his wife and daughters Clara, Erna and Anne to join him in 1927. 

Four more children would follow in the Depression years, all born in New York.  She was very proud of her first job as a secretary for a Wall Street firm, one of the few office positions open to women at that time.  

After being told she would never make it as a trader in the coffee world, Erna proved the naysayers wrong. In the late 1970’s she began her career as the only woman green coffee broker in the United States founding Knutsen Coffees, Ltd.

 

Below are the transcript by SCA news:

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All around the world, Erna is known as the godmother of specialty coffee. She was the first to give a name to our movement, coining the term “specialty coffee” itself, and she ceaselessly advocated for the values of quality, identity, and distinction in coffee.

Erna began her coffee career as a secretary in a coffee trading firm, where she became fascinated by the “special” coffees that were traded alongside more commercial, “commodity” coffees. 

Eventually, Erna established her own customer base, founding her own coffee trading company, Knutsen Coffees, Ltd. Erna’s newsletters from Knutsen Coffees became well known in the coffee trade, and her enthusiastic style and deep knowledge of coffee informed and inspired a generation of coffee people. 

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Through these newsletters, which she distributed in the post and via fax before the internet era, Erna gave a language to the specialty coffee movement, giving coffee people a clearer understanding of coffee origin, tasting terms, processing techniques, and the tricks of the trade.

Erna loved the specialty coffee community, and her presence always brought extra joy to any coffee event. Anyone who ever shared a cupping table with her will remember her unreserved love for coffee, and her joy in sharing her love with others. 

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She became a leader in this industry, always sharing her own story as a way to inspire others in coffee. Erna was proud of being a woman in coffee, and she was an especially passionate advocate for women in coffee, and building a more equitable and inclusive coffee trade.  

She was also proud of her Norwegian identity, and received a special ‘Golden Coffee Bean Award’ from the country of Norway.

Erna was recognized by the Specialty Coffee Association of America twice: she was the first ever recipient of the SCAA Lifetime Achievement Award in 1991, and was again honored as a founder of the specialty coffee industry in 2014 (watch her acceptance speech above). 

Erna’s role as a leader, founder, and innovator in specialty coffee cannot be overstated, and it is with the greatest respect and sadness that we in the specialty coffee community observe her passing.

 

 

The hardwork behind the success stories

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Truly, she gave so much of herself for specialty coffee, completely and unselfishly.  But how many of us really understand the heartaches she bore?  Below are some of her own words about her experiences.

“No woman had ever crossed this threshold – from secretary to selling,” Knutsen says. “I loved it, and I love people, but men gave me a really hard time. They didn’t like the idea of women coming in and doing what I’m doing.”

Even though I was kept out of the cupping room and the roaster because I was a woman, and they didn’t call me a woman either. They were all men and they didn’t think women deserved the break. But I fooled them. I bought the company and fired them all.

Imagine try to keep a woman out? Anyway, I learned a lot from them. One of the highlights was a young fellow dropped by the office and I said, “Hi, there!” And I remembered him. He was a kid from Stanford, the son of the people who brought Mandheling, Sumatra to the USA. 

Oh, God, what a thrill! He said, “I’m taking this to New York, it’s in my baggage and I’m flying to New York to tell them about it.” And I said, “Oh, come on, let’s take it to the cupping room and roast it.” And he said, “Okay, I’ll go get it!” What a sweetheart!

So there was four men, and I was sitting in the back because I was a female, and they roasted it, made the coffee, and the guy who roasted it said, “Erna, stay in your cubicle, we’ll bring you a cup.” 

Oh, that took a lot of - I don’t know what you’d call it, but anyway. Well, it was the beginning with my love affair with Mandheling, Sumatra, oh God. It’s still my favorite coffee. So I looked at my boss, Wilmer, and said, “Well, can I buy a container?”

He said, “If you can sell it, sweetheart, it’s yours.”

I said, “I can sell it!” And I started the next day selling it and we sold out in about a month. A container! 250 bags. And to this day, it’s my favorite coffee. I know most of you have tasted it, haven’t you? Mandheling, Sumatra, oh, God, it’s creamy! (laughs)

 

Greatest experience of my life

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But what a joy ride it’s been, going to all the producing countries and telling them about how wonderful their coffees are. Where was the wonderful…?

Nicaragua! Oh! The women’s group in coffee [International Women's Coffee Alliance] said we’re going to Nicaragua and I said “ok” and we got there and we walked in, all the men were put away somewhere, (laughs) and big gold and blue banners that said in Spanish…

 

Las damas de cafe verde. [The Ladies of Green Coffee]

 

We ended up dancing and crying with the women, they were so happy they finally had their hour in the sun. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life.

 

Appreciation

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She explains that there are still very few women in the coffee industry, and none that she could think of who are actually importing coffee on their own.

But Knutsen never paid much attention to the men who tried to stand in her way and instead sought out the few who were willing to help her, such as her boss at the coffee company who let her make that first buy. And it wasn’t long before she was accepted and respected by brokers from New York to San Francisco.


This is the story of the “Godmother of Specialty Coffee”—she gave of her entire life for this single passion, and even though she dealt with unjust treatment and countless difficulties, she stayed true to her passions and never gave up. 

So, is success difficult to achieve? This difficulty is just a question of whether or not you can devote an entire lifetime to one single solitary goal or mission, and persevering unrelentingly for that which you love.