I’ve been itching to read a book about coffee ever since I devoured the Wikipedia article on the topic. The article covered coffee’s origins, types, and methods of roasting and drinking. Interestingly, both article and book begin by informing the reader that coffee is the second most traded commodity in the global market (oil is first). That alone should say something about the nature of coffee, but it turns out that it has a particularly turbulent history, in more ways than you might expect.
Pendergrast’s hefty book starts out simply enough: he briefly recounts his experience picking coffee cherries for a day while visiting Central America. This then segues into a primer on coffee cherry anatomy and the harvesting process. From there, it’s straight to coffee’s birth as a cultivated crop in Ethiopa and its inevitable spread.
The contrast between coffee’s history and the way in which we enjoy it today is drastic. Coffee as we know it has been around less than 100 years. Oh sure, coffee’s been coffee for a long term, but even well into the 20th century, Americans particularly were guilty of ruining the drink by boiling the hell out of it first. The drip method of brewing didn’t really catch on in America until after WWII. Britain in the 18th was the leading importer of coffee before the national taste went back to tea.
Pendergrast’s main focus, however, has to do with the economics and social impact of coffee. As one might expect, the places in which coffee is grown have historically been centers of revolution, genocide, and other societal nastiness. Brazil, for most of the century flooded the global market with an unmatchable amount of coffee, has what is agreed to be the worst quality of arabica coffee available anywhere. The market has cycled inevitable in a boom-bust manner, throwing more financial peril and economic uncertainty in the history of this funny little delicious plant.
I won’t try to summarize the book here, because it’s huge, and bursting which facts, which is sometimes to its detriment. At times, Pendergrast’s impeccable attention to detail is a bear to slog through. There are only so many iterations of “a [pick one: bumper | average | poor] harvest in Brazil in [year] brought the price of coffee to [amount] per pound.” I cannot fault Pendergrast’s completeness, but he’s not going to win any awards for narrative style or concision.
I’ll tell you one thing though: I really liked drinking coffee when I read this book.