This lengthy account of coffee is actually an easy read despite its 400 plus pages. The scope however may not be exactly what you would expect. In the first part of the book, a world map with big arrows and lots of dates sums up the early history and origins of coffee, it is a bit rushed but appropriate for setting up the rest of this story. Pendergast, who also wrote a history of Coke-Cola, talks about Europe and Latin America in as much detail neccesary to set up for his main focus: a history of coffee as it concerns the United States.
There are a few good ancedotes including a supposed quote by Pope Clement VIII during the sixteenth century when asked by his priests to ban the moslem drink. “Why, This satan’s drink is so delicious… it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it. We shall fool satan by baptizing it and making it a truly christian beverage.” Also there is a good quote from Balzac (who allegedly had a habit of drinking 60 cups of coffee a day), “…the paper is spread with ink – for the nightly labor begins and ends with torrents of this black water, as a battle opens and concludes with black powder.” The bulk of this book however is decidedly focused on how coffee developed in the US, and it is a very interesting account.
From the Boston tea party, to early roasting companies, to the loss of quality and the rise of mass produced and marketed product. This book talks about how two world wars ingrained coffee into the national identity, and about the volatility of the commodity that lead to messy US interventions in Latin America. The final chapters talk about the rise of specialty coffee and the decline of the conglomerates during the post baby boom era.
One of the most interesting accounts is the story of Howard Schultz and Starbucks. I would highly recommend any espresso loving, starbucks hating individuals to read this account. Latte art competitions, higher coffee prices, these would have never risen to the level that they are now without the visibility that Starbucks has given to specialty coffee. Peets coffee probably would have become another casualty of General Foods and you would have no idea that coffee came in the form of a bean.
I would also suggest reading a recent post, Brewed Coffee and the UK, on 2007 World Barist Champ Jim Hoffman’s blog. Especially interesting is the visual Jim includes showing how espresso from Italy was originally all about speed and not so much quality, though we like to think differently. The romatic Italian espresso paegent that inspired Schultz to put La Marzocco’s in every single one of his stores helped introduce the next generation of coffee enthusiats to the possibilities. Without such mainstream exposure provided by Starbucks it is doubtful there would be such a healthy coffee community that there is now.
The most irritating thing that Starbucks has introduced into our culture however is truly a bunch of nonsense. Confirmed by a quote from an early Starbucks employee, Dawn Pinaud who was apparently there when it happened, “It’s amazing to me that these terms have become part of the language, a few of us sat in a conference room and just made them up.” She is talking about the names for their drink sizes, which I personally have always refused to use.
Though Uncommon Grounds is undeniably focused on coffee concerning the US it is an important history that would have grown to nearly 1,000 pages had it tried to be more comprehensive. For anyone interested in a more indepth look at the origins and spread of coffee I would suggest reading Anthony Wild’s Book about coffee (Published first as Coffee: A Dark History and then as Black Gold: A Dark History of Coffee). For those looking to a contemporary account of the specialty industry I would suggest Michaele Weissman’s God In A Cup. Looking back is a good way to understand what the future holds. Having read all three of these book I have definitely gained a better appreciation of how far coffee has come and a sober understanding of how far it has to go.