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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
You'd be hard pressed (or, perhaps, French pressed) to find a bad cup of joe in this day and age. You can fill up with an espresso while your car fills up at the local gas station, or drink a latté while perusing the shelves at your favorite bookstore.
The world consumes an average of 2.25 billion cups of coffee a day, and the United States drinks one-fifth of that. And with Starbucks introducing specialty coffee across the globe, even the English — as renowned for their bad coffee as we are for our bad tea — have modified their ways to serve up a proper mug of the steaming potion.
While coffee is hardly a new beverage, the culture associated with it has reemerged as a way of life in the last ten years. First discovered in the rainforests of Ethiopia in the 6th century C.E., coffee beans were initially considered a food by the Galla tribe, who crushed them, rolled them into balls with animal fat, and used them as an energy boost. It wasn't brewed into a drink until 500 years later, and another 500 years passed before the first coffeehouse opened. Today, coffee is the second most valuable legal commodity on earth (oil is the first), and Starbucks Coffee, the definitive leader in the specialty roaster market, is pulling in as much as $3 million a day from their 2,000 stores worldwide.
If that caffeine buzz is making you thirsty for knowledge about coffee, here are two new books certain to quench it — The Coffee Book: Anatomy of an Industry from Crop to the Last Drop by Gregory Dicum and Nina Luttinger, and Uncommon Grounds: The HistoryofCoffee and How It Transformed the World by award-winning business writer Mark Pendergrast. For a brief social history, filled to the brim with anecdotes, informative sidebars, and illustrations, The Coffee Book provides an exuberant and comprehensive survey documenting everything from the discovery of the coffee bean to the rise of café society. Dicum and Luttinger, co-owners of Fair Trade Zone, an ecologically responsible importing and wholesaling company, also offer a deft analysis of the industry at large and explain the cultivation, harvesting, and roasting processes.
Coffee was initially believed to be a medicament. By the late 16th century, European travelers to the Middle East described it in their journals, noting its frequent use as a remedy for stomach maladies. But the aromatic and savory pleasures were not lost on coffee drinkers, and soon cities like Constantinople, Cairo, and Mecca opened the first coffeehouses. They quickly became cultural epicenters where habitués gathered to play chess and review the news of the day.
Though coffee remained a monopoly of the Arab world, the increase in European travelers to the Middle East, and the expansion and integration of the Ottoman Empire, led to coffee's eventual arrival (through smuggling) in the West. By 1650, the first English coffeehouse opened in Oxford, and cafeacute;s soon became central to urban social life.
In the United States, coffeehouses became a place for political discussion and strategy. It was in this venue that citizens planned the Boston Tea Party in 1773, after which coffee emerged as the American national drink, dramatically changing the dynamics of the coffee trade between the United States and the key producing countries.
Touching on such explosive themes as colonialism, the exploitation of migrant workers, and the devastating impact coffee production has had on the environment, The Coffee Book covers a lot of ground(s) in 183 pages. But if The Coffee Book whets your appetite, Uncommon Grounds is sure to sate it. Pendergrast — whose previous book, For God, Country, and Coca-Cola, laid bare the saga of another globally popular beverage — is a fearless journalist, and this probing history may turn your stomach as you sip your cappuccino. With painstaking research and an undeniably engaging voice, Pendergrast explains how the coffee industry came to dominate and mold the economy, politics, and social structures of Central and South America.
The history of coffee is extremely controversial, as Pendergrast details the way in which European imperialists set up coffee plantations in places like Java, Brazil, and Haiti, enslaving the people there. Even today, conditions for coffee workers are as atrocious as ever, as laborers are forced to work 12 hours a day, 6 days a week, and live in squalor as industry executives rake in millions at their expense. Politically, coffee is responsible for the continued subjugation of the Mayan Indians in Guatemala. It provided virtually all foreign exchange for Idi Amin during his genocidal reign in Uganda. And the Sandinistas launched their revolution in Nicaragua by commandeering dictator Anastasio Somoza's coffee plantation. Ecologically, coffee has spurred deforestation and water pollution.
And while coffee is a labor-intensive process that fails to adequately compensate the very people who bring us our national drink, Americans cannot wake up without it. Pendergrast predicts that by the turn of the century, "world coffee production and consumption should exceed 100 million bags a year." Only one thing is certain about coffee, asserts Pendergrast: "Wherever it is grown, sold, brewed, and consumed, there will be lively controversy, strong opinions, and good conversation."