Coffee -- 1,500 years of fascination

Books On The Magic Bean


If you are reading this Sunday paper with a cup of coffee in your hand, it is probably one of your 2.5 cups for the day. (That is if you are between the ages of 30-49, more if you are older, fewer cups if you are younger.) And those beans that you ground were probably picked by people who were paid less per day than what you paid per pound for the coffee.

The story of coffee is a fascinating one. A complex blend of history, trade wars, economics and politics. How did that little bean discovered by a goatherd in Yemen more than 1,500 years ago become such a hot commodity through the centuries?

The telling is as varied as the roasts, and the choice, like coffee, is a matter of taste ... a deep, rich brew or a frothy cappuccino?

A rich, satisfying blend, hard to put down is "Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How it Transformed Our World" by Mark Pendergrast (Basic Books, 520 pages, $27.50).

Pendergrast begins his story on a hillside in Guatemala, picking ripe beans, elbow to elbow with the people whose lives today depend upon each bean. More than any other, his story is about the people who move the bean and those who have been moved by it.

After reading Pendergast, you can link real people with products such as Yuban, Hills, Folgers and Melitta. You understand that in 1908, Melitta Bentz, a German housewife, created a drip filter by punching holes in a tin cup and lining it with her son's blotter paper.

And 99 years ago, two brothers named Hills were the first to vacuum-pack coffee in their name-branded cans. A concept, an image, that the coffee would always be fresh was marketed successfully then and still sells today.

The long economic evolution of this commodity is carefully recounted as Pendergast blends household names and little-known facts with depressions, wars and major political events.

Brew a large pot of a rich, deep roast as you pick up "Coffee: The Epic of a Commodity" by H. E. Jacob (Burford Books, 296 pages, $18.95).

First published in German in 1935, this "epic" was recently revived by Lynn Alley, who writes the foreword. Of the five books reviewed here, it is the most romantic, literary and scholarly.

Not surprising, the author traded ideas with the great minds of his time, such as Albert Einstein and Thomas Mann. While the early history is quite detailed, and sometimes esoteric, the book gives us a uniquely European perspective on coffee history and economics.

Coffee was almost eliminated in Germany because for centuries beer producers dominated the market. Not until coffee was seen as having restorative and medicinal properties did anyone imagine that anything was better for the German populace than beer all day long.

Once coffee had achieved acceptance, in the late 1700s, scholars and laborers alike gathered in the new European coffeehouses to discuss events, ideas and (at least in Paris) "revolution."

Start grinding that shade-grown, politically-correct coffee as you get into "The Coffee Book: Anatomy of an Industry from Crop to the Last Drop" by Gregory Digum and Nina Luttinger (The New Press, 196 pages, $14.95). This neatly designed, small, square paperback, with black and white "info-graphics," might display a bit of attitude, but once you dig into some of the revelations about international trade and marketing, you will find this most stimulating.

In the 1950s and 1960s coffee was at its height of consumption and of crisis.

Certain roasters and manufacturers were forcefully controlling prices, international cartels were forming, and governmental agencies were being created to control them. Just when you think that you need Harrison Ford to get you out of this political conflict, you are rescued by the authors, who have provided "sidebars" (or informational panels) to help you keep everything straight.

The informative text is dotted with political cartoons and magazine ads pulled from the past that entertain and shock our current sensibilities.

Intense, with brief chapters on history, production, brewing, machinery and recipes, "Coffee: A Gourmet's Guide" by Mary Banks (Carlton, 95 pages, $14.95). could be the "espresso" drinker's book. This hardbound book is designed in a magazine-style format with large photographs and headlines opening each chapter.

Archival black and white photos of the postwar coffee scenes, are striking, as are the scenes of people in lush coffee landscapes, all wrapped with a text that is clear and concise.

The section discussing the various coffees produced around the world is the most complete of that in any of the five books and can be used as a reference before shopping for a new coffee to suit your taste. Kenya AA, for instance, really does mean the best quality arabica bean with a "delicate and winey" flavor.

Pop that brew into a blender with some ice and ice cream and cool off with the wonderfully simple recipe for "granita di caffe."

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