In Memoriam: Erna Knutsen

Above: Erna Knutsen, accepting her second lifetime achievement award from the SCAA in 2014 (her speech begins at around the 9:10 mark). 

It was with great sadness that we at the Specialty Coffee Association learned of the passing of Erna Knutsen.

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. 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. 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.