2 February 2024

Book Review: Uncommon Grounds by Mark Pendergrast

With the new coffeemaker at home, I am trying to learn the fine art of making different kinds of coffee, There is a lot of runway left in that learning. Wanted to pick up some of the theory and history behind coffee. (You might remember my three year journey into gins). I think it was Stephen Leitner who had pointed me to this book “Uncommon Grounds”.

Fascinating book. If not anything else, it showed how little I knew about coffee. Some of the highlights of the learnings include:

1. Coffee originated from the ancient land of Abyssinia (now Ethiopia). We are not sure when though.
2. Roasting of beans is relatively new – sometime in the fifteenth century
3. Like gin in England, alcohol in general in the USA, coffee all over the world has a rich history of becoming popular only to be blamed for a lot of social ills and then getting banned. Which was usually followed by periods of surreptitious drinking and smuggling.
4. Growing up in India, I was aware of the coffee plantations in the south. What I was not aware of was that coffee made it to India with a Muslim pilgrim taping seven seeds to his stomach and smuggling them to south India during a “prohibition” period in the middle east.
5. Europeans were the ones to start adding milk to coffee while the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern folks still drink their coffee straight. It is theorized that this is because Europeans can tolerate milk while the folks in the Middle East and Mediterranean areas tend to be lactose intolerant.
6. The folks to adopt coffee last – the Scandinavians – ironically are the ones with highest per capita coffee consumption today.

Much of the book is dedicated to detailing how colonialism and slavery were intertwined and abetted by the coffee producing countries. Other than putting forward how unfairly the slaves and locals were treated by the colonials for profit, it also details some interesting history of the Cold War where USA and the CIA got deeply involved in the local politics of Latin American countries thru coffee economics (to stave off the fear of communism taking over).

Above all, when it comes to America, this book is an ultimate treatise on how consumer marketing evolved in the USA. Fascinating history of false claims, brilliant packaging, provocative ads, adoption of the practice of TV sponsorship, all the way to congressional hearings to peddle more of the black aromatic beans!

Another interesting fact: The total value of coffee traded today is larger than the GDP of over half the countries in the UN!!

While this has done nothing to improve my cappuccino foaming skills, I strangely feel smug while drinking a cup of coffee.

Enjoyable read!

Posted February 2, 2024 by Rajib Roy in category "Books

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