The Birth of the Frappuccino
How one café’s solution to its summer slump created the iced coffee beverage that swept the globe.
Of all the cultural touchstones that came out of Massachusetts in the 1990s—Napster, Good Will Hunting, Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch—none have endured like the Frappuccino.
That’s right: The original brain-freezing, whipped-cream-topped wonder slurped around the globe didn't unfold in some Starbucks test kitchen in cool, damp Seattle but rather at an independently owned café one sweltering summer in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Behind the Frappuccino is a visionary named George Howell, a name virtually unknown outside the coffee industry. But who was this man who gave rise to the biggest beverage craze since the old-fashioned soda fountain? And what does he think of the Frappuccino today?
To understand the Frappuccino’s place in beverage lore, you first have to know about the soda fountain, another Massachusetts-born phenomenon.
In the mid-1800s, a drugstore in Lowell, Massachusetts, became the site of the first concession counter with an ice shaver that automatically mixed in cold cream and syrup—and voila, the ice cream soda was born. It became all the rage. New England was suddenly the soda fountain epicenter of the country. (One could argue that the milkshake continues to bring all the boys to Harvard Yard today.)
In many ways, the rise of the Frappuccino echoes that history.
The soda fountain and the coffee shop both serve nonalcoholic drinks, are places where young people can gather to kill time or flirt, and are generally seen as more “wholesome” or family friendly than, say, the town pub. “The soda jerk and the barista are parallel roles—young and charismatic, serving fancy concoctions with a flourish,” says Peter Giuliano, executive director of the Coffee Science Foundation and chief research officer for the Specialty Coffee Association. “The flavors, syrups, creams, blenders, sprinkles, straws, etc., are perfect parallels between the two kinds of place.”
In other words, the Frappuccino didn’t invent the wheel, but it may have spun it full circle.
The First Frappuccino
George Howell looms large in the coffee world: His legacy is a laundry list of totally out-there experiments in pursuit of novelty and quality. He’s been known to freeze coffee beans to preserve their vintage; he’ll sell four-ounce bags of coffee (from Hacienda La Esmeralda La Noria) for $65 a pop.
Before the Frappuccino came the “iced cappuccino,” he told me over the phone, recalling how iced coffee drinks sprang onto the market in the mid- to late-‘80s as a way to compete with soda to entice a younger demographic. “Cold and sweet” was the name of the game, and coffee poured over (or blended with) ice was popping up at chain coffee shops as well as independent cafés from coast to coast.
Around that time, Howell took a trip to Seattle, then the national hotbed of coffee culture. He needed to solve the “summer slump” that hit his cafés every year when the Harvard kids went on break. That’s where he tasted his first iced cappuccino—and from then on, he was transfixed. It seemed simple enough to reproduce: It was basically just milk, sugar, and coffee blended in a granita machine to prevent it from crystallizing.
“I went back to Boston and gave [the idea] to my marketing director, Andrew Frank, who perfected the recipe and gave it a name,” Howell says. “The minute he said, ‘Frappuccino,’ we said, ‘Oh my God, it’s perfect.’”
Howell acknowledges that the Frappuccino was a version of the iced cappuccino already popular on the West Coast, but his version changed the game as the first of its kind in Boston: It simultaneously boosted coffee sales in the off season and carved out a new niche in the East Coast’s caffeinated canon. “By adding Frappuccino,” he says, “we made summer equal to or better than any other quarter.”
For a fleeting three years, the Frappuccino was a New England-specific phenomenon, a sweet, frosty drink beloved by locals and college kids.
Then came the mermaid.
Frappuccino, Meet Starbucks
You probably know the Starbucks story, about how a coffee retailer in Seattle’s Pike Place market grew into a full-fledged coffee house and espresso bar in the 1980s and—largely due to its corporatization in the ‘90s—is now a global behemoth with more than 34,300 stores worldwide.
By 1992—the year Howell thought he’d solved his “summer slump”—Starbucks had already gone public. The year prior, it had 119 locations; by 1993, that number had nearly doubled. The brand was taking over mom-and-pop shops across America—and eager to keep up the buzz with novel products.
That’s where the Frappuccino comes in. In 1994, Starbucks acquired Howell’s stores and trademarked the Frappuccino. By the following year, Howell says, “Frappuccino as we knew it disappeared off the face of the earth,” replaced by a Starbucks creation.
“It was not our drink,” he lamented. “They were doing it in blenders, which had far more flexibility to add things—which we didn’t do,” referring to additives like xanthan gum, mono- and diglycerides and carrageenan. Starbucks reported $52 million in Frappuccino sales in 1996; the drink was so successful that the brand launched a grab-and-go bottled version to keep up with demand.
Howell has mixed feelings about Starbucks’s coffee revolution. “You can’t take away the fact that they truly professionalized the ways that cafes were run,” he says. But lost in the process was the original Frappuccino recipe, which he stands by as the superior beverage.
Coming Full Circle
The ‘90s being back in style is a reminder that everything comes back around eventually. The wheels of time keep turning just like the Frappuccinos of the world keep churning.
As for Howell, he’s long since moved on to (literally) greener pastures as co-founder of the Cup of Excellence, an organization specializing in unroasted (aka green) coffees. His George Howell Coffee shops still source some of the finest single-farm, artisanally roasted coffee beans in the world. Visit any of his three cafés in Boston, and you’ll find an old favorite on the menu: For trademark reasons, it’s called The Original.
The Original tastes like coffee. Not just any coffee but the kind that doesn’t hide behind the milk and sugar but rather balances them with a complex sweetness and bitterness. The texture? Frozen velvet—no xanthan gum required. True to its roots, The Original is just milk, sugar and coffee.
“It’s such a popular drink that we use the same machines as Dairy Queen,” he says. “It flies out the door.” How does the godfather of the world’s most famous frozen drink hope to be remembered by future Frappuccino-slurping generations? With a chuckle, he says, “The monument to me will be somewhere around the North Pole.”