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Celebrating International Women’s Day in Remembrance of Erna Knutsen, Godmother of Specialty Coffee

Bethany Steel  |  March 8, 2024  |  International Women’s Day

As we sip our morning brews on March 8th, we celebrate International Women’s Day! A day that remarkable women blazed trails historically. On March 8th, 1908, thousands of fearless ladies marched through the streets of New York City, demanding better working conditions and voting rights. And since 1910, this date has been all about celebrating equality. So, here’s to all the fantastic women out there, kicking butt and taking names!

This morning, let’s raise our mugs to Erna Knutsen, the woman who brewed her way through coffee's boys' club with a dash of feminism and a whole lot of flavor.

In an era where coffee was often synonymous with bland, mass-produced blends and sold by the container, Erna worked as an “Executive Assistant” at B.C. Ireland, a coffee importer in San Francisco. Eager to take on more responsibility than her title at the company implied, she welcomed the challenge of selling an entire container of Sumatra Mandheling in one month! Through this, she discovered a niche market and dared to sell small lots of coffee to small roasteries.

She didn’t stop there; this was just the beginning of the changes Erna would make for the coffee industry! In 1973, after being excluded as a woman for an extended period, Erna triumphantly claimed her seat at the cupping table, showing those doubting male colleagues that she had every right to be there—and then some! In that same year, during an interview with a journalist, Erna uttered two simple words that would change the coffee industry forever: "specialty coffee."

In the year of its 100th anniversary, Erna bought B.C. Ireland and renamed it Knutsen Coffees LTD. During her second SCAA award acceptance speech in 2014, Erna jokes: 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. No! Did I? Oh, no. Imagine trying to keep a woman out? Anyway, I learned a lot from them.” Erna's impact extended far beyond the beans themselves. In a world where women were often relegated to the sidelines, she waltzed right into the coffee scene, armed with determination and a killer palate.

For Erna, coffee wasn't just about the coffee but about the people behind it. With a warm and bubbly demeanor, she created friendships with coffee farmers worldwide, ensuring they got a fair deal and a seat alongside her at the table. Her influence became even more significant when she joined the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA). Erna continually advocated for inclusivity and quality standards within the industry through her work with the SCA, cementing her status as the Godmother of Specialty Coffee.

Erna's journey wasn't without its challenges! As a woman in a male-dominated industry, she faced skepticism and pushback. So, as we celebrate International Women’s Day, let's raise our mugs in remembrance of Erna Knutsen, the feminist force of nature who brewed up a storm in the world of coffee. Her legacy reminds us that with unwavering passion, a whole lot of caffeine, and a sprinkle of feminist flair, anything is possible—even changing the world, one cup at a time. Cheers!

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