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Uncommon Grounds : The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World Hardcover – June 1, 1999

4.3 out of 5 stars 51 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

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.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 522 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books; First Edition edition (June 1, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465036317
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465036318
  • Product Dimensions: 1.8 x 7 x 9.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (51 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #438,186 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

I am the author of six books of critically acclaimed non-fiction. The latest is JAPAN'S TIPPING POINT: CRUCIAL CHOICES IN THE POST-FUKUSHIMA WORLD, a short book on a huge topic. Can Japan radically shift its energy policy, become greener, more self-sufficient, and avoid catastrophic impacts on the climate? In the post-Fukushima era, Japan is the "canary in the coal mine" for the rest of the world. I arrived in Japan exactly two months after the Fukushima meltdown. This book is the account of my trip and my alarming conclusions. INSIDE THE OUTBREAKS, is a history of the CDC's Epidemic Intelligence Service. The others are UNCOMMON GROUNDS, the history of coffee, FOR GOD, COUNTRY & COCA-COLA, the history of the soft drink, MIRROR MIRROR, a history of mirrors, and VICTIMS OF MEMORY, a book about so-called recovered memories. One critic called me "the ultimate freelance journalist with an eclectic mind." I suppose he meant that I write about whatever interests me. I prefer to call myself an independent scholar, since my books are heavily researched. I joke that I should have earned an honorary Ph.D for each of them in their respective subjects. What my books all have in common is that they cover subjects that matter. In my small way, I hope to make the world a somewhat saner, safer place. I'm not sure if my children's book, JACK AND THE BEAN SOUP, will make the world a better place, but I hope it makes it a bit more humorous. The book is a fractured fairytale -- basically, an elaborate fart joke, though it does explain how evil came to the earth and the origin of thunder! I live in Vermont with my wife and dog, and I like to hear from readers. For more information on my books, see www.markpendergrast.com.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
If you are looking for something light that offers some tips for tasters or a cultural history on some of the exotic places that coffee is grown, or even an appropriate book for your coffee table, I suggest you look elsewhere. This book is none of that. This book is pretty narrow in focus and limits itself to discussions on the history of coffee growing and the business end of the industry. Topics covered include trading, marketing and distribution, consumption patterns, the emergence of cafe's and big coffeehouses, and the social, environmental, and political issues in both the producing and consuming nations. As with so many recently published books this one suffers from a pop-culture sounding title which is deliberately eye-catching, but misleading with its grandiose claim. These titles work best with popular science books about arcane subjects that changed the world set in stories about eccentric heroes and villains. I enjoy those books but this is a different book. This serious work is more referrence book than story. Don't get me wrong though. UNCOMMON GROUNDS: THE HISTORY OF COFFEE AND HOW IT TRANSFORMED OUR WORLD is too well written and has enough anecdotes to provide the "latte" for what could otherwise have been simply a dark and thick text-book.
One of the issues that Pendergrast focuses on is the stark social contrasts between where coffee is grown and the markets where it is consumed. As we read on it becomes very apparent that for Pendergrast, researching this book was part moral lesson. He pays special attention to issues of economic justice and makes us see some of coffee's story in this light. He says coffee "laborers earn an average of $3 a day. Most live in abject poverty without plumbing, electricity, medical care, or nutritious foods".
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Format: Hardcover
It's not everyday you find a five hundred page book on the history of coffee. But then again, most coffee fans take their jobs quite seriously. Author Mark Pendergast has chronicled ups and downs of this remarkable commodity on an unprecedented scale. He takes us from the discovery of the bean in the hills of Ethiopia all the way to the despicable excesses of Starbucks. The first few chapters of this book take us on a jaunty trip through coffee's early history, including the ruthless and colorful European traders who were responsible for introducing the Western world to the bizarre beverage. Pendergast, a businessman by education, then settles into a wonderfully readable economic history. The structure of the material centers on the companies and international agreements that make up the international coffee system. But unlike so many commercially-oriented histories, Uncommon Grounds is eminently readable and captivating. The characters in the saga are fascinating: from American industrialists to Latin American peasants to African warlords to European consumers, there are people involved in this story, not just money. If you have a yen for coffee, grab an espresso and read this book. You won't find weighty theories on how coffee forms the basis of all human history, rather a fun, a caffeine-inspired trip through modernity with java-tinted glasses. -- HistoryHouse.com
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Format: Hardcover
Uncommon Grounds is the best history of coffee and the coffee trade to be published in English in over three-quarters of a century.
Mark Pendergrast has provided both to the casual reader and the coffee professional a perspective on the history of coffee and the coffee trade that has the ring of truth.
Pendergrast has not bothered the reader with myths of goatherds and mullahs, but focuses on the documented true story with the adventure and lure of fortune to be found in the brown gold that is coffee. We can sense the anguish and torment of peon and slave, and feel the silk-shirted personalities of the 19th Century robber barrons who created the great coffee fortunes. We cry with the Central American farmers, and cheer on the fledgling specialty coffee roaster/pioneers of the 1970's who created the new coffee business which heralded the myriad of consumer coffee choices of today.
The reader is swept along with the flow of history, as it is paralleled in the telling of coffee's fortunes and the fortunes of the men and businesses who have pursued it's financial promise. By the last chapter Mark Pendergrast has our cup running over with knowledge and understanding. Uncommon Grounds' text, authoritativly annotated and footnoted, brings coffee into sharp focus, warts and all. The picture is clear, well textured and on balance, an appealing and fascinating one. Uncommon Grounds, by Mark Pendergrast is sure to be enjoyed by the coffee lover on your gift list.
The reviewer, a professional roaster/cupper is Gourmet Specialties Editor @ Tea & Coffee Trade Journal, founded in 1902, the oldest and most esteemed trade organ serving the international coffee community.
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Format: Hardcover
In Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World, Mark Pendergrast traces the commercial, political, and social impact of the bean from its mythical discovery by an Ethiopian goatherd named Kaldi to its modern vacuum-packed ubiquity. Pendergrast does best when describing the coffee-drinking habits of populations around the world down through history. Also of great interest are the sections illustrating the impetus that the coffee trade provided empire-building nations during the age of colonialism. Some of the strongest sections of the book deal with the role of the coffee trade in Cold War and contemporary U.S. foreign policy. Pendergrast also devotes ample attention to the social and environmental effects of the cultivation of coffee in the countries where it is grown. The text only lags a bit, however, during the long accounts of relatively mundane business maneuvers by various U.S. companies attempting to gain market supremacy. There is a useful appendix illustrating how to brew "the perfect cup" of coffee.
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