Before Starbucks, a Review of Uncommon Grounds (Book)

Review of “Uncommon Grounds”

A social history of the wondrous elixir known as coffee.

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Caffeine is the most widely taken psychoactive drug on earth, and coffee is its foremost delivery system. That got my attention, along with the fact that the United States is Caffeine Country — 90 percent of us imbibe caffeine in one drink or another — but not until I read all 520 pages of Mark Pendergrast’s encyclopedic coffee epic did I realize how powerful the coffee image has been even beyond its caffeine component.

In the 1930’s, while 98 percent of American families were coffee drinkers — including 15 percent of children between 6 and 16 years of age and 4 percent of children under 6 — my family swigged only Postum and Sanka. We believed C. W. Post’s warnings that caffeine disintegrated brain tissue by attacking the pneumogastric nerve. At the same time we were completely addicted to ”Amos ‘n’ Andy,” Major Bowes, the ”Maxwell House Show Boat,” Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy; all our favorite radio stars were sponsored by Big Coffee.

As I romanced to ”Let’s have another cup of coffee, and let’s have another piece of pie,” behind my every dream was an advertiser, pushing. ”Every businessman wants a product that is habit-forming,” wrote the Maxwell House adman Bill Benton, of Benton & Bowles. ”That’s why cigarettes, Coca-Cola and coffee do so well.” And that’s why the history of advertising can be equated with any of these habit-formers and why the history of coffee is a natural follow-up for the author who earlier wrote ”For God, Country and Coca-Cola.”

However, coffee is an even better model than Coke of the way in which social, economic and political forces interact globally whenever addiction is aroused, whether for tobacco, sugar, diamonds, gold, pepper, petroleum, cocaine or caffeine. No surprise there, but what is surprising is how early coffee was commodified in the Americas and how much the violent history of Latin America is still tied to the lure of the coffee bean.

Once the bean migrated from its native Abyssinia (Ethiopia) into Yemen, probably in the sixth century A.D., the coffee habit conquered Arab traders, Ottoman emperors, the courts of Europe and finally the colonists of the Americas. Europe’s habit was sustained on the backs of New World slaves, both native and imported. Early in the 19th century, coffee supplanted sugar on the vast plantations of Brazil. Even after Brazil revoked slavery in 1888, it relied on indentured peonage. Coffee was grown wherever labor was cheap — in Central America, Africa and the Dutch East Indies. Where the bean was planted, so too were the seeds of revolt.

The boom-and-bust cycles endemic to this commodity were established as early as 1823, when European speculators, gambling that war between France and Spain would close overseas trade, bought up Brazilian beans and went bankrupt when war was avoided. ”The modern era had commenced,” Pendergrast writes. Henceforth coffee’s price would swing wildly as a result of speculation, politics, weather and the hazards of war.

Coffee, in other words, is an organic commodity subject to drought and disease, to over- and underproduction and to hoarding and dumping through coffee syndicates, speculators, commodity brokers and government-supported quota systems and price supports. Because the picked green bean, long before it is brewed, must be heavily processed (depulped, fermented, roasted and ground), growers, harvesters, roasters and marketers all have their hands in the till. Coffee, as one grower complained a century ago, ”is the most speculative business in the world.”

Pioneers of the United States coffee industry saw that the way to make money was to do their own roasting, invent packaging to keep roasted grounds fresh, use cheaper beans as needed, buy up competitors ruthlessly and advertise endlessly. Happily, Pendergrast puts a human face on the shenanigans of the coffee barons, detailing a remarkable cast of American eccentrics in the wars between the big roasters of the last century — Folger’s, Hills Brothers, MJB, Maxwell House, Chase & Sanborn, A.& P. — and the giant corporations of this one. An ironist as well as a moralist, Pendergrast notes the interlocking of delivery systems after Philip Morris moved into the coffee business by buying General Foods and after Coca-Cola merged with Duncan Foods.

From such Byzantine intertwining no coffee purist or anti-caffeinist is safe. But quality begins with the bean. Robusta, the commodity bean of Brazil, is hardy but rough on the palate. Arabica, the finest bean, is far more delicate in flavor but harder to grow in the mountainous regions of Jamaica, Hawaii, Costa Rica and Kenya. Naturally, Arabica costs more.

The coffee industry produced its own backlash when a new generation ignored cost for other values, like social justice, ecology and — of all things — taste. Earlier heroes like William Black, who founded his own brand, Chock Full o’ Nuts, in New York in the 1950’s, and Alfred Peet, who dark-roasted his own quality beans at Peet’s Coffee and Tea in Berkeley, Calif., in the 60’s, were followed by the trio of college boys in Seattle in the 70’s who started Starbucks. True to market patterns, after the founders sold the company in the 80’s to their former marketer, the specialty brand went national and then international, Starbucking all of America and now moving into Japan.

Today we Americans drink less coffee than we did in the 30’s, but we are drinking and brewing it better. We no longer boil grounds campfire style or percolate them genteel style in the pot. And we have a taster’s dream choice of beans, roasts, grinds and brewing equipment. Even our lingo has changed — from ”Gimme a cuppa joe” to ”Give me an iced short schizo skinny hazelnut cappuccino with wings.” (Translation: a small iced hazelnut coffee with one shot of regular and one of decaf, plus skim milk with foam, to go.)

With wit and humor, Pendergrast has served up a rich blend of anecdote, character study, market analysis and social history. And while the reader sometimes needs a caffeine jolt when too much raw data and too little structuring clog the brew, still everything you ought to know about coffee is here: even how to make it. Measure two tablespoons of freshly roasted and ground coffee per six ounces of not-quite-boiled water and steep four to five minutes.

Betty Fussell is the author of ”The Story of Corn” and the forthcoming ”My Kitchen Wars.”

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Also see: How to Choose a Home Roaster FAQ

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