Since its discovery in an Ethiopian rainforest centuries ago, coffee has brewed up a rich and troubled history, according to Uncommon Grounds, a sweeping book by business writer Mark Pendergrast. Over the years, the beverage has fomented revolution, spurred deforestation, enriched a few while impoverishing the many, and addicted millions with its psychoactive caffeine. Coffee is now the world's second most valuable legal commodity, behind oil, according to Pendergrast, who is also author of For God, Country, and Coca-Cola.
"A good cup of coffee can turn the worst day tolerable, can provide an all-important moment of contemplation, can rekindle a romance," he writes. "And yet, poetic as its taste may be, coffee's history is rife with controversy and politics." For example, coffee bankrolled Idi Amin's genocidal regime in Uganda and the Sandinistas' revolution in Nicaragua. Uncommon Grounds provides some fascinating tidbits. Did you know that coffeehouses helped spawn the French and American revolutions? Or that coffee supplanted alcohol as a favorite breakfast drink in Britain in the late 1600s, and later became a patriotic American beverage after the Boston Tea Party? Pendergrast also details the rise and fall of regional coffee brands in the United States, the role of advertising in the industry, the global economic impact of coffee prices, and the recent emergence of specialty-coffee retailers--Starbucks, for example. Finally, he explores the social and environmental ramifications of coffee and highlights recent attempts to encourage a livable wage and environmental protection in coffee-producing nations such as Brazil. Pendergrast also includes an appendix on "how to brew the perfect cup." This wide-ranging book is a good read for those curious about the history and context behind that morning cup of coffee, as well as for those strictly interested in the business side of the industry. --Dan Ring
From Publishers Weekly
Caffeinated beverage enthusiast Pendergrast (For God, Country and Coca-Cola) approaches this history of the green bean with the zeal of an addict. His wide-ranging narrative takes readers from the legends about coffee's discoveryAthe most appealing of which, Pendergast writes, concerns an Ethiopian goatherd who wonders why his goats are dancing on their hind legs and butting one anotherAto the corporatization of the specialty cafe. Pendergrast focuses on the influence of the American coffee trade on the world's economies and cultures, further zeroing in on the political and economic history of Latin America. Coffee advertising, he shows, played a major role in expanding the American market. In 1952, a campaign by the Pan American Coffee Bureau helped institutionalize the coffee break in America. And the invention of the still ubiquitous Juan Valdez in a 1960 ad campaign caused name recognition for Colombian coffee to skyrocket within months of its introduction. The Valdez character romanticizes a very real phenomenonAthe painstaking process of tending and harvesting a coffee crop. Yet the price of a tall latte in America, Pendergrast notes, is a day's wage for many of the people who harvest it on South American hillsides. Pendergrast does not shy away from exploring such issues in his cogent histories of Starbucks and other firms. Throughout the book, asides like the coffee jones of health-food tycoon C.W. PostAwho raged against the evils of coffee and developed Postum as a substitute for regular brewAprovide welcome diversions. Pendergrast's broad vision, meticulous research and colloquial delivery combine aromatically, and he even throws in advice on how to brew the perfect cup. 76 duotones. Author tour.
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