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Remembering Cape Horn Coffees Founder and Past SCAA President Paul Leighton

Paul Leighton coffee

Paul Leighton at the cupping table. Courtesy photo.

Founding member of the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) and professional French horn player Paul Leighton passed away in March at age 69 after a long battle with a rare blood condition.

Leighton was most recently the president of the green coffee trading company Cape Horn Coffees, which he founded in Eugene, Oregon, in 1995, and is now based in Denver.

“Paul was one of a kind — supremely knowledgeable, and a man that put coffee and people above profits,” Daniel Neves, Leighton’s partner in the business along with Mark Williams, told Daily Coffee News. “I could not have had a better mentor in this business, and I am proud to carry on his tradition.”

Cape Horn team

Paul Leighton, Daniel Neves and Mark Williams of Cape Horn Coffees. Courtesy photo.

Born to public school music teachers in Texas in 1950, Leighton landed his first permanent gig playing French horn with the Portland Opera at the age of 19. He moved on to play with the Eugene Symphony and continued playing the instrument throughout his life. In a 2017 autobiographical account shared with DCN, Leighton described his professional musician self as, “totally underpaid, over appreciated — a poor horn player who just happened to really like good coffee.”

In 1976, Leighton took a part-time job at a Eugene coffee shop called Coffee Corner, and that’s where his career started moving in a whole new direction. Within four months, Leighton had bought the company; he began roasting two years later in 1978; and grew it into a retail chain before leaving the business to focus on his new importing company, Cape Horn Coffees, in 1996.

Within that time, Leighton was an instrumental figure in the creation and early direction of the SCAA, which merged with the Specialty Coffee Association of Europe in 2016 to become simply the Specialty Coffee Association. Leighton was a founding member of the SCAA and served as the group’s president in 1986.

Paul Leighton

Paul Leighton was a professional French horn player before entering the coffee business. Courtesy photo.

In 2013, Leighton was diagnosed with cancer, and it was later confirmed that he was suffering from a rare blood system disorder known as MDS.

According to his own account, Leighton began revising the Cape Horn Coffees business in partnership with Neves, who grew up on a Brazilian coffee farm, in 2013 while working from a hospital bed. Leighton received a successful stem cell transplant in 2014, and Williams joined as a CHC partner in 2017. The business carries on today.

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2 Comments

Dan Donohue

Thank You Paul. I always learned something new from Paul, even across almost 30 yrs in the industry. He knew his business, shared his perspective, challenged mine, and has widened my viewpoint on the industry, making it much more interesting and accessible.

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